What you really need to know about Lyme disease in Nova Scotia

Just reading about ticks and how they can latch on to people, suck their blood and spread Lyme disease can be enough to make your skin itch.

Nova Scotia is home to 14 types of these insects, including dog ticks, groundhog ticks, rabbit ticks and black-legged ticks. Dog ticks, also known as wood ticks, are the most common ticks found in the province; they do not transmit Lyme disease.

Beware black-legged ticks

Only one tick in Nova Scotia can carry Lyme disease: the black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick. Some (but not all) black-legged ticks carry Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes the disease.

Black-legged ticks can also carry Powassan virus, Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Babesia. To date, there has only been one case of human anaplasmosis acquired in Nova Scotia, and no human cases of babesiosis or Powassan infection.

Media stories have been circulating about illnesses from lone star ticks, but there is no evidence that these ticks, which live in the southern U.S., have established in Nova Scotia.

Lyme disease in Nova Scotia

In 2017, there were more than 500 reported cases of Lyme disease in Nova Scotia, up from 326 cases in 2016. It’s expected the number of cases may continue to rise as black-legged ticks expand their range. All of Nova Scotia is considered an at-risk area for black-legged ticks.

A black-legged tick bite doesn’t equal infection

Even if you’re bitten by an infected black-legged tick, your risk of getting Lyme disease is low: from 1.2 to 3.2%. Studies show that an infected black-legged tick must stay attached for at least 36 hours before it can transmit disease.

Don’t fear all ticks

Dr. Eric Balser is a family physician in Middleton, N.S., who studied ticks when he was a biology student at Acadia University. He’d like more awareness of ticks, so that people understand that it’s only the black-legged tick that can transmit Lyme disease.

“Dog ticks are the ticks people find on themselves most of the time,” he says. “They’ve been ubiquitous in Nova Scotia for centuries, so we’d know by now about other diseases that these ticks might transmit.”

Ticks thrive in humid environments and areas with woods, shrubs, long grasses and dead leaves. Black-legged ticks are active when the outside temperature is above 4°C, so your risk of a black-legged tick bite is highest in spring, summer and fall. Even on a cold day, ticks may be active if they’re in leaf litter, which can be warmer than the air.

Know your ticks!

Black-legged ticks are small – only about one-quarter the size of dog ticks. A black-legged tick usually has black legs and a black, circular shaped scutum (the hard, protective shell on its back that links to its head). On an engorged feeding black-legged tick, you’ll still be able to see that circular black scutum.

Only female black-legged ticks and nymphs feed and transmit disease; they have longer, more prominent mouth parts than other ticks. An unfed adult female black-legged tick has a reddish abdomen. Only about the size of a poppy seed, nymph black-legged ticks are hard to spot; they have the circular black scutum and a light brown abdomen.

Dog ticks are much bigger than black-legged ticks and have lighter colouring on their legs and bodies. Unfed female dog ticks have a mottled scutum with white or creamy spots and streaks, and a brown abdomen. On a feeding engorged dog tick, you’ll be able to see the scutum with its distinctive spots or streaks.

Male ticks of both species do not feed. Compare black-legged ticks with dog ticks.

Enjoy the outdoors

Don’t let fear about tick bites keep you indoors this summer. “Not all ticks transmit disease,” says Dr. Balser. “Dog ticks should be seen as black flies – they can bite you and you don’t need to panic.”

If you’ll be spending time in wooded or grassy areas, there’s lots you can do to prevent tick bites. Wear bug repellent containing DEET or icaridin, long pants and sleeves, and tuck your pants into your socks.

When you come inside, check your clothes and body for ticks: start with your head and hair and work your way down. Ticks like warm places, so pay attention to your ears, neck, armpits, groin, behind your knees and between your toes.

Remove ticks safely

If you find a black-legged tick attached to your body, don’t kill it before you’ve removed it safely. An infected tick that’s killed while feeding is more likely to spread bacteria. Using tweezers, grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible and pull it straight out. Wash the area with soap and water and disinfect it with rubbing alcohol. Record the date and location you were bitten.

If you were bitten by a dog tick, you may react to its saliva. That’s normal and not a sign of infection. Remember: only black-legged ticks carry Lyme disease.

Lyme disease symptoms

Muscle aches, fatigue, fever and chills, joint pain and headaches are the main symptoms of Lyme disease, which may occur at once or over time. Sometimes, a bull’s-eye rash will appear on the skin. Left untreated, the disease can cause serious issues, such as arthritis, abnormal heartbeat and nervous system disorders.

Should you feel unwell after a bite from a black-legged tick, see your family doctor right away. If you’re on the waitlist for a family doctor, you may consult a family doctor at a walk-in clinic or emergency department.

If you saved the tick that bit you, you can drop it off for identification at the Museum of Natural History at 1747 Summer Street in Halifax.

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