If brushes with ticks seem to be increasingly common on your trail runs, odds are the uptick in skin-crawling encounters isn’t just in your head. Recent research shows not only that the tick population in Canada is continuing to branch out into new areas, but also that ticks carrying the bacterium that causes Lyme disease have a better chance of surviving the winter than those not infected.
Rates ticking upward
A new study published in the online journal insect science shows that female ticks infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium have greater survivability rates over the winter months, suggesting that a greater proportion of the tick population will be able to spread Lyme disease as more of the blood-eating mites surface in the spring.
In addition, rising temperatures linked to climate change are making areas of the country previously unpopulated by ticks fertile ground for the parasites. Nick Ogden, a senior researcher with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), recently told the CBC that “there’s quite a lot of evidence to support the idea that really a major driver of the emergence of ticks has been recent climate change. Because of the warming climate, the new geographic footprint of Canada from Manitoba eastward that’s suitable for the ticks is increasing all the time.”
Statistics from PHAC, which tracks cases of Lyme disease across Canada, reveals a clear upward trend in the number of annual cases reported over the past decade. The numbers of human cases have exploded from 144 in 2009 to 3,147 in 2021.
Although a quick brush with a blade of grass can be enough for a tick to hop a ride on an unsuspecting runner, forested areas—particularly in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia—are hotspots for blacklegged ticks and other species of the parasite capable of spreading Lyme disease. Dressing strategically is the first line of defense to protecting yourself. Keep covered by wearing tights or long pants tucked into your socks and sporting a long-sleeved shirt, and spray your clothing with pest repellent.
Don’t wait until the end of your run to check yourself for ticks. Stopping for a snack or gear adjustment on the trail can be a good time to do a spot-check for any stowaways. Quick scans can also be done on the run; running single-file on a group outing will make it easier for your friends to have your back, and vice versa, allowing you to spot ticks you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. While a hot, soapy tick shower is likely already part of your post trail-run routine, it’s also a good opportunity to do a more thorough check. A long shower can also free a tick from your skin that hasn’t yet embedded itself.
If you find a tick …
Ticks need to be attached for at least 24 hours to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, so you’ll likely be able to avoid infection by spotting and removing the tick right away. If you do spot an embedded tick, a pair of fine-tipped tweezers will be your best tool for extractions. Use the tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible, and pull upwards, making sure no part of the tick remains. Use soap and water to clean the bite area and apply antiseptic.
Seeking medical treatment
Seeing a doctor after removing a tick—especially one that had become embedded in the skin—will cut your chances of developing Lyme disease, an illness that carries flu-like symptoms that can be chronic and debilitating. Medical treatment becomes crucial if you develop flu-like symptoms or the telltale “bull’s eye” rash around the bite site, but you may still be susceptible to infection without these warning signs. A doctor may start you on a course of antibiotics to prevent Lyme disease and other illnesses transmitted by ticks.