Manitoba

As snow disappears, ticks emerge

Now that the snow has finally melted, it's time for Manitobans to protect themselves against disease-carrying ticks.

Ticks are taking advantage of the warm weather in Manitoba

Deer ticks, a.k.a blacklegged ticks, are the carrier of Lyme disease. (CDC/Reuters)

When the snow starts to vanish and the weather warms up, some bloodthirsty bugs crawl out of the woodwork to feast on their prey.

That's right: ticks are already being spotted in Manitoba. 

Experts say ticks usually begin their hunt for blood by late April or early May. The tiny, disease-carrying arthropods can survive all year but must eat vital fluids at each stage of their life cycle to stay alive.

Kateryn Rochon, a professor of entomology at the University of Manitoba, said tick populations are shifting and rising in the province. And although incidents of infection are on the rise, she said people shouldn't stop enjoying the outdoors.

"Don't stay inside and live in fear. You just need to protect yourself."

Researchers link the increase to our changing climate and the spread of other animals that ticks feast on, such as mice and voles. Rochon said ticks have everything they need here: lots of small mammals and an ideal environment, even in winter.

She said the annual density of the tick population depends on many factors, such as temperature and moisture.

Living with Lyme disease

Along with increasing tick numbers, reports of infectious disease linked to ticks have risen in recent years, according to a provincial bulletin issued April 18.

Although ticks are tied to multiple pathogens, most rarely affect humans. Lyme disease, carried by blacklegged ticks, is the most common. In 2017 the province's health department recorded 56 reported cases of Lyme disease, with 29 confirmed so far. The remaining cases are under investigation. 

In 2009, the province's health department recorded only one confirmed case of Lyme disease.

Manitoba has published a surveillance map, detailing locations where people are most at risk of encountering blacklegged ticks. 

Winnipegger Chelsea Saj struggles with Lyme disease.
Chelsea Saj contracted Lyme disease, but says she can't point to where or when she was bitten by a tick. (Submitted/Chelsea Saj)

Unable to pinpoint an exact bite or moment in time, she suffered from decreased stamina and flu-like symptoms.

"It was really hard for me because I had so many weird things going on and I just knew that something was off," Saj said.

"People just kind of attribute it to stress or anxiety, and that really angered me." 

Her general practitioner, as well as other doctors and specialists in Canada and the U.S., conducted multiple diagnostic tests, many of which showed up negative.

She says it took two positive test results for Lyme before she underwent an intense year of treatment on antibiotics and antimicrobials to target the infection and deal with subsequent heart problems, severely low blood pressure, insomnia, and anxiety.

Tick bites often go undetected because the initial bite is usually not felt and the effects resemble those of a mosquito bite. It takes three to 30 days for the signs and symptoms of Lyme, which is why infection is often overlooked.

Manitoba Health said in an email that no cases of illnesses carried by ticks have been reported so far this year, and no one has died in 2017 or 2018 as a direct result of tick-borne disease.

It's raining ticks

The most abundant species are dog ticks, which, as the name suggests, prefer animal hosts. But tens of millions of blacklegged ticks "rain on to Canada, falling from birds" every year, Rochon said. 

Blacklegged ticks tend to poke up a bit earlier in the year but are less bountiful. Lone Star ticks, marked by a white spot, are a more aggressive but extremely rare type of tick, with no established populations in the country. But that could change soon.

According to Rochon, dog ticks prefer sunny, open areas and are more of a nuisance in terms of their biting. Meanwhile blacklegged ticks often wait on the edge of trails or transitional areas, like clearings with grass or the border of wooded areas, preferably in a shady spot. 

She said they will lie in wait low-standing vegetation and shrubbery until something or someone tasty passes them by. They then climb to the end of leaves or twigs, holding on tight using two pairs of limbs. A third set of outstretched legs attempts to latch on to the passerby in hopes of a tasty meal.
A map provided by the province shows the distribution of ticks in Manitoba. (www.gov.mb.ca)

Tick experts agree that the best way to avoid infection is to prevent exposure from happening in the first place. For outdoor adventures, wear pants and long sleeves, strap the ends of pants or tuck them into socks, use repellent, do regular tick checks, shower or bathe in warm water and toss your clothes in the dryer on high heat to kill any hitchhikers. 

The good news: experts say if you protect yourself against ticks, then you're also protected against mosquitoes.