What can we do about ticks?

by Sonja Lukassen, Lead Educator and Director Regional Programs, Ottawa Forest and Nature School

I work in the forest with children and adults. We walk on trails, and off them. We picnic, play, explore and learn among rock piles and vernal pools. It’s idyllic.

And there are ticks.

Ticks wander along the ground, crawling up vegetation looking for food, waiting for a creature to brush past that they can grab onto. They crawl up until they find food, or drop off because they don’t, and start all over again.

When these ticks latch on to eat, if they are carriers of disease, they can pass the disease on to us, as hosts. That disease may be Lyme. Now, the tick has to actually be infected, and transmission is more likely after the tick has been latched on for a number of hours, but transmission is possible after just a short while. All it takes is infected saliva to be passed on.

If Lyme is transmitted, there may be signs right away, or there may not. Some folks have very little reaction, and some have a negative impact for the rest of their lives.

Sheesh.

This is a reality in the forest where I work with families and children. This is a reality in the forests of our city and our region. This is a reality in any outdoor space around here- forest, playground, backyard.

Ticks have crawled into the spotlight in the last few years, and many of us are not accustomed to seeing them, feeling them, or dealing with them. Lyme is scary, and even a slight possibility of contracting it affects how we view spending time outdoors.

It is possible to try to avoid encountering ticks. Some folks might choose to stay out of the forest for fear of picking one up, but ticks are not just in the forest. Ticks have been picked up in Ottawa on playgrounds and in backyards. They are here.

It is possible to try to avoid encountering them by staying inside, but is being away from the free, healing, beauty of outdoor spaces a healthier choice than going out into wild spaces where there might be ticks? Every individual needs to decide for themselves. I hope that we can weigh the risks and benefits, and find a way to continue to spend lots of time outside in nature.

Every day I get asked “What can we do about ticks?”. I am not an expert on what one SHOULD do to minimize tick exposure, though I am definitely experienced in being outside for prolonged periods with children, and I have had many conversations with parents and other educators about trying to stay tick-free.

Here is what we do:

  • We insist that participants in our programs dress in long pants, socks, and closed-toed shoes. This keeps the poison ivy off (we have lots of that, too), and makes it harder for ticks to find food if they land on us.
  • We suggest that children wear hats, not just to keep the sun off their skin, but to provide another barrier as they walk through the forest (hip height to me is head height to some of them, so they are a bit more exposed to some foliage).
  • I model tucking my pants into my socks, and suggest it to group members, to make it tougher for a tick to find my skin if it does climb on.
  • We have bug spray, both with DEET and natural alternatives, available for families to use if they do not have their own.
  • We put our bags down and sit to picnic in places that tend to be more bare and rocky, rather than brushy and grassy.
  • When I feel something crawling on me, I check it out. If it’s a tick, I bag it and take it in to be tested.
  • We remind families to remove outerwear and do tick checks before climbing into vehicles, then to do a more thorough, all-body check again upon arriving at home.
  • We direct families to check out the City of Ottawa website for more information, and to find out where to pick up a tick key (for ease of tick removal) and where to drop off a tick for testing if one is found. (This site also shows how to remove ticks, and shares information about Lyme disease).
  • We make ourselves available for more questions and deeper conversations if families feel the need.

Through these conversations we often have the benefit of learning from others what they do to minimize their risk of tick encounters, and what they do if they find a tick.

These are habits that some of the families that we work with have adopted:

Most people I encounter in the forest don’t feel right about choosing to stay inside for fear of ticks, yet they do experience some degree of fear. Ticks are creepy, and the prospect of getting Lyme disease is frightening. This is real. Ticks are here and, while just doing what they were born to do, they can cause us real damage. I’m always pleased when someone approaches me to share their concerns, to ask for information, to share resources that they have discovered. It shows that we are acknowledging a risk that exists in the forest, and that we are doing all that we can to mitigate the risk while continuing to explore, play and learn in the beautiful wilds that surround us.

(I hope this has been useful. Please feel free to share  resources in the comments, or on Facebook.)