What to know about ticks and Lyme disease in Alberta

How to avoid becoming these bugs’ next “blood meal”

Some bugs just kind of suck, literally. If bloodthirsty mosquitoes are first to come to mind for most Albertans, ticks have likely latched on to second place. Given the rising numbers of them being reported in Alberta, they’re not likely to be dislodged from it any time soon.

That also raises the spectre of Lyme disease, a serious illness caused by a bacteria spread by infected deer ticks. Such ticks were found in the Edmonton area last year.

We asked Biological Sciences Technology instructor Kim Krause (Biological Sciences Technology – Environmental Sciences ’88), whose classroom discussions about wildlife biology sometimes include these pesky critters, what we need to know to keep ourselves safe.

Should we be afraid?

deer tick, blacklegged tick“This time of the year, the ticks are out,” says Krause. “If you’re not checking yourself, checking your pets, there’s the possibility of a bite.”

That said, not every tick is an agent of Lyme disease. In fact, the bacterium that causes it, Borrelia burgdorferi, is found only in deer (a.k.a. blacklegged) ticks, which are somewhat common in eastern Alberta but relatively rare in Edmonton.

What’s more, only a portion of deer ticks carry the bacterium. In 2016, a provincial monitoring program found it in 35 of the 182 ticks submitted by Albertans for determination of species and testing for lyme disease. That ratio has remained virtually static in recent years, other than a dip to 1 in 8 in 2014.

Where do they live?

Ticks lurk in tall grass and vegetation in wait of passing mammals or, from their perspective, the “blood meals” that are essential to their survival. Moose ticks are most common around the city, thought they aren’t terribly interested in humans, says Krause.

Ticks are usually easy to identify. Adults have oval bodies and eight legs, like the spiders to which they’re related. Tick larvae, however, have only six legs and are about the size of a grain of sand. They can bite, too.

What can we do to avoid being bitten?

applying insect repellentIf you or your child have been out for a walk in the woods, check for stowaways, says Krause. The same goes for pets.

You can also take precautions. DEET, the active ingredient in common mosquito repellents, works on ticks, too. Alternatively, or as added protection, cover your skin in areas where ticks may live.

“They’re more attracted to dark colours,” Krause adds. “So if you’re wearing light-coloured clothing it may help [repel them].”

What do we do if we’re bitten?

You likely won’t notice it, as bites tend to be painless. Should you find a tick making a meal out of you, remove it with care.

“You want to get it without squishing the bacteria out of it and into you,” says Krause. You can buy special extractors at camping and hunting supply stores, though blunt tweezers also work if you grab the tick by its “mouth parts.”

After ensuring no such parts remain in the wound, apply an antiseptic. See a doctor if you’re worried, says Krause – and, according to Alberta Health Services, particularly if a “bull’s-eye rash“ develops around the bite, or if flu-like symptoms result. “If you have the antibiotics sooner than later it may be more efficient at killing any bacteria ticks may have given you.”

It’s OK to be ticked off after an encounter, but resist squishing your tiny attacker. The best revenge lies in contributing to the kind of knowledge that Krause shares in his classes, making students aware of these creatures, their role in the ecosystem, and the risks.

To do that, pop the bug in a jar and drop it off at the nearest Alberta Health Services Environmental Health Office for testing.

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