Camping and Canoeing in areas with Lyme disease

Ottawa has become a risk area for Lyme disease with 70 new cases in 2015. Some websites suggest that any area where deer ticks are found could be a risk area due to the migratory habits of birds and animals. If Gatineau is not a risk area it soon will be.  

Not all species of ticks transmit diseases to humans but it is best to think of ticks as the “dirty needles” of the animal kingdom. The Black Legged tick, (Xodes scapularis) also know as the deer tick or bear tick, is known to transmit many diseases to humans including: Lyme disease (borreliosis) and other blood borne diseases such as; anaplasmosis, babesiosis, bartonellosis, ehrlichiosis, and others. Diagnosis is often complicated by different types of infections at the same time.

Ticks are tiny arachnids related to spiders and mites. They are very small , the size of poppy seed for juveniles/nymphs and the size of a sesame seed for adults, after feeding they may swell to the size of a pea. At first glance a feeding tick may look like a freckle or scab until it becomes engorged and swells to many times it’s original size. Body checks for ticks are recommended in risk areas where infected Deer ticks are common.

Ticks need a blood meal, after hatching, prior to molting, and before they reproduce.

They hatch and molt in the leave litter on the forest floor, then climb to the tips of grass, plants and bushes, and wait for lunch to pass beneath them. Once on your body, they climb to an area with a good blood supply such as the armpit, back of the knee, groin, back, neck, etc. and begin to feed. They avoid detection by gently abrading the skin and secreting an anesthetic compound that numbs the area before the plunge their head and mouthparts beneath the skin. Once attached, they feed for 3 to 5 days before they drop off the host. The good news is that it takes 2 or 3 days before the bacteria in the tick’s stomach to get passed to the host so early detection and removal of the tick reduces the chance of infection.

Where are ticks found? Ticks are most frequently found in long grass and the brush and bushes at the edge of the forest. You are most likely to pick up ticks when walking through an area where you brush up against long grass or brush. You may be at risk when you are engaging in activities such as: answering the call of nature or changing in a secluded area, hiking or portaging in an area without trails (bushwhacking) setting up a tent or a food rope , looking for firewood or scouting the shore or a bank of a river. Having said that you can find ticks anywhere. My brother-in law contracted Lyme disease in the back yard, cutting the grass while wearing shorts.

When are ticks active? Ticks are active from spring through fall and early winter. They are resistant to cold and will survive light snow and killing frost to revive during the early days of early winter. Nymphs or juvenile ticks are active during the early spring and summer. They are considered to be the most dangerous because they are very small, hard to detect, and you may not notice that you have been bitten..

As campers how do we protect ourselves?  We each assume a certain level of risk when we enjoy the outdoors. It is up to us to decide what level of precaution is prudent and to pick and choose the practices that we choose to adopt.

Outdoor activities – If you are not protected stick to the centre of walking paths and trails and avoid brushing up against long grass or brush.

Physical barriers – Tents and clothing create a barrier against ticks. Consider wearing hats, shoes & socks, long pants and shirts with long sleeves when hiking and portaging long.

Clothing selection - Consider wearing hats, shoes & socks, long pants and shirts with long sleeves ,when hiking and portaging. Bright and light colours make it easier to see moving ticks on your body.

Insect repellents - Unlike mosquitoes you can not tell when ticks are biting. Consider wearing insect repellents approved for ticks. Avoid clothing with openings and open mesh that allows ticks to climb through or large mesh that would allow ticks to climb through. If you do consider spraying or if you insect repellent on the outside of openings. Citronealla and soybean oil products offer little protection against deer ticks.

Tick Checks - The longer a tick has been feeding, they more likely you are to become infected. Physically check yourself and others periodically throughout the day. Do a full body scan before you go to bed. Do a quick check of your campsite when you select your spot. If you see a lot of ticks, consider moving to another spot if possible.

Gear placement – Avoid dumping your gear into or onto plants and bushes. This is also a good way to avoid other surprises like poison ivy or wild parsnip burns.

Laundry – Consider bagging outdoor clothing and washing is separately from regular wash. Ticks can survive for several days indoors and are resistant to warm water and tumble drying. Hot water washing kills most of the ticks but drying on a hot setting, until no moisture remains, is required to kill the rest (for at least 6 -15 minutes).   If you are washing your clothing on a trip, do not use bushes and shrubs to dry your clothing.

Preparing to come home - Is it unreasonable to shake off your clothing or brush yourself and your gear down before you put in in your car? People on extended trips often keep clean clothes in the car and change before they travel home.

Bathing and showering - Bathing and showering after you have been outdoors in a tick prone area is recommended, Probably because you are more likely to find ticks while doing so. If you are on an overnight trip swimming is another alternative.

How to remove a Tick - Knowing how to remove a tick correctly is very important. If you kill it or squeeze it before or during removal, you may inject the stomach contents into your body.

Grasp the tick as close to the head as possible, with tweezers or a tick key and pull it straight out, slowly. Do not burn it, spray it or cover it in ointment to smother it before you remove it . Do not touch a tick with your bare hands. Do not throw it away but place it in an empty pill vial or zip-lock bag with a moistened paper towel for later identification.

If you have been bitten – After the tick has been removed, wash the area with soap and water. A small red bump may occur around the bite site for several days but this is normal. Continue to monitor the site of the bite for signs of infection. Pay attention to changes in your body such as unusual skin rashes or physical symptoms. Seek immediate medical attention from a Lyme literate medical professional if you experience warning symptoms.

Get your tick tested – If you do get sick you may need to provide proof of being bitten to your Doctor or insurance provider. Tick identification is a free service.

You may have been bitten by another species of tick that is not known to transmit disease to humans.

Ticks on people – Ottawa Public Health

Ticks on pets – Public Health Agency of Canada

Early symptoms of Lyme disease - Early detection and treatment is required to avoid long term infection. Most people, who are infected with Lyme disease, experience flu-like symptoms within 3 days to a month after being bitten characterized by:

  • Chills
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • headache
  • muscle and joint pain
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • 90 % of people experience a red rash at the site of the bite. In half of these cases a characteristic bulls eye rash develops that slowly expands from the site of the bite.

Chronic infections are difficult to diagnose and treat. The bacteria inhabit all tissues and organs mimicking many other health conditions that may occur months or years after infection. Symptoms may include;

  • Severe arthritis
  • Severe skin rashes
  • Neurological problems
  • Heart problems
  • Digestive problems
  • Overwhelming fatigue
  • Emotional problems and mental illness

Finding a Lyme literate health care professional is imperative in obtaining proper diagnosis and treatment of chronic lime disease. Treatment is complicated by multiple infections that can occur concurrently and must be identified and treated systematically in order to ensure improved health.

Information links:

Chronic Lyme disease info


Tick identification with pictures

10 important ways to avoid summer tick bites


Government Sites