As summer camp approaches and we are preparing for our camp’s adventure programs in the great outdoors, it’s important to talk to your staff and campers about some health and safety concerns that come with outdoor play. One of these concerns is ticks and the associated diseases that could come with a tick bite.
What is a tick?
Ticks are small spider-like animals that bite to fasten themselves onto the skin and feed on blood. They are about 0.5 to 1.5 cm long, have 8 legs and have a reddish oval shaped body. If they are biting you/embedded in the skin and feeding on your blood, a full adult tick can potentially increase 20 to 50 times in size.
Where are ticks found?
They usually cling to long grass and shrubs and when a potential host passes by, like a dog or an unsuspecting hiker, they will latch on to fur or clothing. Ticks will usually look for a warm place on a host where they can bite/embed and start feeding.
Why are ticks dangerous?
While most ticks don’t cause serious health problems, it’s very important to remove a tick immediately to avoid potential infection or diseases and submit it for testing. Some ticks carry a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, that can cause Lyme disease in humans.
It’s important to know that during a tick’s nymph stage, it’s only about the size of a period in a sentence. Many people are infected by nymph ticks, but don’t suspect Lyme disease because they don’t actually remember being bitten. According to the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, 50 percent of people infected don’t remember being bitten and less than 50 percent of people will get any over-emphasized rash to warn them of potential infection.
Lyme disease has many symptoms including headache, facial paralysis or twitching, stiff neck and/or jaw, sore throat, runny nose, impaired vision, pain and sensitivity in the eyes, ringing in ears, diarrhea or constipation, irritable bladder, upset stomach, bone and joint pain or swelling, muscle pain, shortness of breath…and the list goes on. Click here to view the full list of Lyme disease symptoms.
What to do if I find a tick on a person or pet?
Although the risk of Lyme disease is very low in Alberta, other tick-borne diseases can be transmitted by ticks so it’s important to remove it from the body as soon as possible. If a tick is attached to a person’s skin, take the following steps to remove it:
- Using tweezers, gently grasp its head and mouth parts as close to your skin as possible.
- Without squeezing the tick, slowly pull the tick straight up off the skin – do not jerk or twist it.
- Do not apply matches, cigarettes or petroleum jelly to the tick.
- Once the tick has been removed, clean the bite area with soap and water and disinfect the area with an antiseptic. Wash hands with soap and water.
Alberta Health asks you to submit the tick for testing as part of a tick surveillance program. Once removed, save the tick in a clean, empty container. Do not add any ventilation holes to the container that is being used to put the tick(s) in. You can put more than one tick in the container if they are found on the same person or in the same general area in the environment. Add a small piece of tissue or cotton ball, lightly moistened with water, into the container to prevent the tick(s) from drying out.
Submit the tick for testing as soon as possible. You can bring it to an Alberta Health Services Environmental Health office (find a location near you), a First Nations health centre or if you find one on your pet, contact your veterinarian to find out if they can submit it for you.
What does a tick bite look like?
A tick bite typically looks like a round, red rash that spreads outward form the site of a tick bite. It looks little bit like a “bulls-eye”. About half the people infected with Lyme disease develop the rash within 4 weeks, so you might not actually detect the bite right away. The rash usually isn't painful or itchy. It fades within 4 weeks, even without treatment for Lyme disease.
Image from My Health Alberta
The first symptoms of Lyme disease are tiredness, headaches, sore muscles and joints and fever. If you suspect you or a camper has been bitten, they should see a physician immediately.
How can I protect myself, campers and staff from tick bites?
When walking on trails or in the forest, encourage everyone to stick to cleared trails when walking in tall grassy or wooded areas. Wear light-coloured clothing and cover up as much skin as possible. For example, wear long pants, socks and a hat. You can use a bug spray that contains DEET to repel ticks as well.
After spending some time in a grassy or wooded area, check yourself and others for ticks. This includes checking both the inside and outside of your clothing. Ask your campers to shake out their clothing and when they are in their cabins getting ready for bed, to check themselves for ticks and if they find a tick or a bite, to report it to a cabin leader right away.
For more information, visit Alberta Health Services.