It's the season to start being cautious about ticks and Lyme disease, and this year the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) has launched an interactive map to help people assess their risk of being bitten.
As the weather warms and people start trekking more into tick territory, the public health arm of the provincial government has created a map where users can enter their address and find out if they are in a high-risk area for encountering an infected insect.
The map, which is now available online, currently shows people are at greatest risk on the South Coast and in the valleys of the southern Interior.
Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and in British Columbia the western black-legged tick Ixodes pacificus poses the biggest threat of carrying it. The greatest risk of tick bite occurs during the spring and summer.
Janet Sperling, president of the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, says the map is a wake-up call, especially for people who thought the risk was lower than elsewhere in the country.
"It really brings home the fact that there is a risk of Lyme disease across B.C," said Sperling.
Ticks live in tall grass and forested areas and latch on to people or animals as they pass by. They burrow part way into the skin, bite, draw blood, and then drop off.
According to Thompson Rivers University professor Rob Higgins, an entimologist who studies ticks, less than one per cent of western black-legged ticks collected in B.C. and tested by experts were infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.
But Higgins said about 12 to 15 new cases of Lyme disease are reported in B.C. every year and, of these, the majority are contracted on the coast.
"So while there's the potential for contracting Lyme in the Interior — and it has occurred — it doesn't occur very often," he said Thursday during an interview on CBC's Daybreak South.
If left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to serious complications such as arthritis, joint pain and cognitive issues, the BCCDC says.
Higgins says anyone in any area considered risky should always check for ticks after being outside and take protective measures before heading out.
For people hiking in tall grass or wooded areas, the first step in dealing with ticks is prevention:
Put on a light-coloured, long-sleeved shirt.
Tuck your pants into your socks.
Shower when you get home to prevent a tick from latching.
Experts say it takes time for a tick to transmit Lyme disease to a human and there is little risk if you catch and remove the offender right away. Higgins says it can take up to 2½ days of a tick living on a person before there is a notable risk of disease, so checking after being outside is critical and effective.
According to the BCCDC, if you find a tick it is important to remove all of it including the mouth parts that could be buried in your skin. It warns people never to squeeze an attached tick's body, which could force its stomach contents into the wound and increase the risk of infection.
Removal should be done with tweezers. Once the tick is gone, the bite area should be cleaned with soap and water and then disinfected with antiseptic cream.
Ticks found by B.C. residents can be identified for free by submitting a photo to www.etick.ca.
If you have been bitten by a tick or were in a high risk area and are suffering from a rash where you know you were bitten or experiencing a fever, headache, fatigue, muscle paralysis or joint pain, see a health-care provider immediately, the BCCDC says.