Beware of ticks this spring: parasitologist

By Charlene Tebbutt
May 18, 2018 - 2:00pm

Ticks are most common at this time of year, so it's important to be vigilant and protect yourself from the biting pests while enjoying the outdoors.

Late May to early June is when ticks are most active, according to Brent Wagner, a parasitologist at the University of Saskatchewan. In recent years, Wagner said ticks have been more commonly found in the Prince Albert area and northern regions.

Over the last eight years, provincial surveillance teams have collected and counted 26,000 ticks across Saskatchewan, Wagner said, with just 65, or less than one per cent, being of the black-legged variety, the type known to carry lyme disease. Wagner said the risk of contracting the disease from a tick bite is low, as most of the ticks found across Saskatchewan are the American dog tick, a more common variety that doesn’t transmit the disease.

“These strange ticks come up north on migrating birds from the United States and they fall off," Wagner said. "Lyme disease, although it is potentially around, it is exceedingly rare in the province.”

Lyme disease can include flu-like symptoms, such as sore throat, headaches, stiffness and congestion. The disease can affect the whole body, and can cause neurological and psychological issues.

If you are concerned about a tick you found on your body or a pet, Wagner said the insects can be submitted to a veterinarian for review. The Public Health Agency of Canada will also test black-legged ticks for signs of lyme.

“If I’m going to go hiking in Saskatchewan, I’ll probably avoid areas that I know have ticks for a couple of months in the early summer," Wagner said, "probably just late May and June."

Wagner said ticks can cause discomfort and they’re not fun to look at, but there are precautions people can take such as avoiding areas with long grass and shrubbery and areas with lots of wildlife as ticks tend to be more common in those locations. Residents should also tuck their pants into socks, wear bug spray, and dress in light-coloured clothing to lower the risks. 

Candace Uhlik said it took nearly 20 years to get a diagnosis to explain her symptoms. She says some days she can do simple tasks, while other days lyme disease leaves her bed-ridden.

“It’s very hard because the disease symptoms are not predictable,” Uhlik said. “For me, it’s excruciating bone and muscle pain in my feet and my hips, back pain, I’ve also got horrible muscle spasms in my upper back and I get a lot of shooting and stabbing pain in my head. I have eye problems, hearing problems, balance problems and then my energy can be just zapped at a moment’s notice.”

Jim Wilson, President of the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, said the numbers of ticks is likely under-reported and the test used to identify lyme disease is a “one size fits all” test that misses certain signs. Wilson says the test used in Saskatchewan has a high rate of false negatives results and, in other areas, testing isn’t done due a lack of awareness about the disease.

Wilson says ticks can infect people with viruses other than lyme.

“Our motto is 'no tick is a good tick,' and I think it’s far too often people let their guard down, and say ‘oh, it’s just a dog tick,'” Wilson added.

 

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On Twitter: @CharleneTebbutt

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