Monique Keiran: Tiny ticks a good reason to be cautious

A couple of weeks back, I hiked up Jocelyn Hill with some friends.

A number of us wore shorts and T-shirts. One person, however, wore long pants and a long-sleeved top. She looked warm, and said she had changed out of cooler clothing after reading about Lyme disease that morning.

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Reporter Cindy Harnett’s article about retired local anesthesiologist Dr. Martin Rodgers, who had been bitten by a tick in his Malahat garden three years ago and was now battling Lyme disease, appeared in the Times Colonist that day.

I pointed out to my friend that she hadn’t tucked her pant legs into her socks.

“Oh, I’m not going to do that,” she said.

“But if you’re not going to tuck your pants into your socks, you may as well wear shorts,” I said. “Any tick that crawls onto your boots can crawl right up your legs, and you won’t see it.”

I lived and worked in the Rockies more than a decade ago. There, spring is generally considered tick season, but because winter can last until July in some mountain areas, the association between “spring” and “tick season” is approximate.

Here, spring’s long, slow yawn begins in February. It also rarely gets cold enough on the coast nor stays cold long enough to kill hardy bugs like ticks.

Furthermore, ticks are active at different life stages, which happen at different times of year. For example, tiny tick nymphs might be out for blood in autumn. They, too, can carry and spread the bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, that cause Lyme disease.

Tick-prone areas include meadows and other grassy areas, shrubby areas, and especially any place where deer and other animals frequent. In Victoria, that could be your garden.

Many different species of tick exist. Some are more likely to carry the bacteria, but not all individual ticks are infected.

And some people who are infected with the bacteria show the classic bull’s-eye rash soon after, but others don’t — ever.

Rounding out the tick roulette, some research indicates that you have about 24 hours to remove a tick that is feeding on you before you are likely to be infected. The blood feast causes the Borrelia in the insect’s gut to begin reproducing like mad. After about 24 hours, the bacteria cause the bug to vomit them into your bloodstream as it’s feeding.

How revolting.

Since I moved away from the Rockies, I’ve become complacent about the eight-legged bloodsuckers.

Once I rarely ventured into the bush without tucking my trouser cuffs into my socks or spraying my hiking boots, socks and legs with insect repellent.

Now I own neither products containing DEET nor socks that are both tough enough for a hike and long enough to allowing tucking.

My former (and now future) anti-tick precautions predate confirmation that ticks in western Canada carried the dreaded Borrelia bacteria. Instead, I grew up on tales of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tick paralysis and other ailments shared by the seed-sized critters. It was only during my last few years in the mountains that Lyme disease loomed locally as a possibility.

I recently met a colleague from those mountain days. He mentioned that several people he had worked with in the 1980s now suffered from unaccounted-for neurological problems, including memory loss, chronic fatigue, muscle wasting and nerve issues.

He speculated about Lyme disease, but didn’t know. He said the acquaintances also didn’t know. Three decades have passed since they spent their summers roaming slopes, exploring valleys and camping in high-mountain passes.

Lyme disease might have existed in the Rockies back then, but remained undetected, undocumented and unknown. The bacteria can incubate for years in some people before causing illness. It’s also possible the illness occurred back then, but lack of awareness and difficulties with diagnosis — which continue today — left it undiagnosed.

Better to be cautious — to be dweeb-ily unfashionable by tucking cuffs into socks, to use hormone-disrupting DEET, and to thoroughly check for ticks on body, scalp, hair, clothing, pets and gear after every outing in tick-prone areas.

Just in case.

Find information on how to avoid ticks at bit.ly/1FID5AS.

keiran_monique@rocketmail.com

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