Tick season is off to an early start this year, thanks to a milder winter and an early spring warm spell. There have already been reported cases of tick bites, so best to be on your guard, as Ontario cottage country is becoming a more popular spot for ticks to settle these days. While they’re generally more prevalent in the United States, climate change is helping to move these creatures north. Established populations are reported in Ontario at Long Point, Point Pelee National Park, Rondeau Provincial Park, Turkey Point, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, and St. Lawrence Islands National Park in the Thousand Islands. In fact, “the St. Lawrence River and Thousand Islands are hot spots right now,” says Mary Peterson, a registered nurse on the communicable disease team at Kingston Public Health. In 2011, they received 345 ticks for analysis, up from 140 in 2010.

But if you’re not in one of these areas, don’t be complacent: The ticks are carried by small animals such as rodents and foxes, but also by birds and deer, so they have the potential to be found farther afield. We’ve even heard of someone being infected by a tick bite in Algonquin Park.

Why the fuss? Tick bites are usually painless but they may cause you to contract Lyme disease, a disease caused by a bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) carried by blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis, formerly called deer ticks). If the infection is caught within a few days of your tick bite, antibiotics usually produce a full recovery. When left longer, treatment may require months of antibiotics. If it’s left untreated too long, it may not be possible to cure the disease, only to manage the symptoms. As Peterson explains, “After too long, you can get rid of the bacteria, but the damage will likely already be done to joints, muscles, and the neurological system.” According to Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, in the long term, the disease can attack the central nervous system, brain, or heart. But, don’t worry; there are lots of ways you can keep yourself—as well as your friends and family—safe at the cottage.

Know what ticks look like. In the summer, ticks are in their nymph stage, and they can be as small as a pepper flake, says Peterson. Once they’ve reached adulthood, “you should have no trouble identifying them.” Adult ticks—before a meal—look like small, thin beetles that are brown and black in colour. Once they start feeding they will balloon up and be more rounded in shape. Not surprisingly, because they can go undetected so easily in the nymph phase, it is the stage when most people are infected with Lyme disease, according to the Ontario Public Health Division.

Do a “full-body check.” Peterson recommends that you check your whole body for ticks “as soon as you come in from the outdoors.” These relatives of spiders generally like warm, moist areas, such as your groin, the armpits and the insides of your arms, and behind your ears, but they can be found almost anywhere, including in your hair. She also suggests a buddy system, since ticks could be hiding on your back. If you’re alone, try using a mirror. Another tip from Peterson: Shower when you get in from a walk outside. It takes some time for ticks to move from, say, a pant leg, to a warm spot on your body. If they haven’t attached yet, they will fall off and go down the drain.

Move quickly. If you do spot a tick on your body, “The sooner you get it off, the better,” says Peterson. It takes at least 24 hours for the disease to be transmitted from the tick into your body, making early detection key.

Try tweezers. While some people may try to remove the tick by burning it off, pulling it out with tweezers is considered the safest, most effective way to do it. Without squeezing, grasp the tick close to the skin and pull it straight out. It’s okay if the head stays in—“It should work its way out like a sliver,” Peterson says—but do keep an eye on it. Clean the bite area with soap and water, antiseptic, or alcohol. Also, be sure to keep the tick, in a sealed container with a bit of moist paper towel, so your doctor or health unit can identify it. If it turns out to be a blacklegged tick, you can have it tested for Lyme disease and other infectious diseases.

Look for the bull’s eye. Lyme disease symptoms can appear any time from three days to one month after being bitten (most often they occur within one to two weeks). The disease can be difficult to diagnose, as most symptoms are easily confused with those of the flu: muscle and joint pain, fever, headache, and fatigue. But a rash that appears like a bull’s eye (a red bite lined with a white and red band) is the most obvious symptom to be aware of.

Take a photo. If you’ve been bitten or are showing symptoms of Lyme disease, get medical advice as soon as possible. Since it may take time to reach a doctor from the cottage, Peterson suggests taking a picture of the rash in the meantime. “The rash often disappears pretty quickly,” she says, “and the photo may make it easier to diagnose the disease.” Be sure to let your doctor know where and when you were bitten, and hand over the collected tick (in a screw-top container) to your local health unit.

More resources:
Public Health Agency of Canada, on tick bites
Public Health Agency of Canada, on Lyme disease
Ontario Ministry of Health information page
Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation page, including a map of reported infections from 1993-2002
Public Health Ontario information on Lyme disease
Lyme Disease Association of Ontario page
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page