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Illness prevention and treatment

May 24, 2018

What you need to know about Lyme disease

Lyme disease, a sometimes-serious illness transmitted by ticks, is on the rise in Canada. As cases multiply, here’s how to prevent it from putting the bite on you.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is a sometimes-serious, inflammatory illness caused by bacteria transmitted from wild animals by tick bites. It was named for the town in Connecticut that hosted an outbreak in 1975 and, says the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), it’s on the rise. In 2017, 1,479 cases were reported in Canada (up from 992 in 2016), and experts believe that number will grow in 2018.

Lyme is a “nationally notifiable” disease, meaning the federal government has made a priority of monitoring and controlling it. Originally found in just one spot in southern Ontario just 30 years ago, black-legged ticks (the species that transmits Lyme disease) are now common in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, southwestern Quebec, Ontario as far north as Ottawa; southern Manitoba and southern British Columbia, according to PHAC. Canadians should also watch for ticks when visiting the United States, where they are even more prevalent.

Symptoms of Lyme disease

The symptoms of Lyme disease can mimic a number of other illnesses and diseases. During the initial, localized phase after a tick bite, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • A bull’s-eye-type rash at the site of the bite
  • A different kind of rash, that may be raised, reoccurring or spreading (though many Lyme patients report no rash of any kind)
  • Mild-to-moderate, flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, fever, joint pain, stiff neck or swollen glands

It’s important to see a doctor and get treatment promptly if you think you may have Lyme. A timely round of antibiotics lasting 2 to 4 weeks is effective in most cases. Without treatment, more severe symptoms may occur after a month or two, as the disease progresses:

  • Severe joint pain
  • Headaches
  • Bruising
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Vision problems
  • Heart beat irregularities

“If it remains untreated,” notes Health Canada, “late Lyme disease can last months or even years.” Symptoms at this stage may include arthritis and problems with memory and concentration.

Your doctor may diagnose Lyme if you have any of the typical symptoms, as well as having spent time in a known Lyme area – whether or not you recall having been bitten by a tick. Blood testing may be inconclusive, as the test used in Canada captures only 38% of acute cases, according to Health Canada.

How to avoid Lyme disease

Here’s what you can do to avoid Lyme disease and the other serious diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia that are spread by ticks in North America:

  1. Cover up when walking through or working in forested or grassy areas where ticks can attach themselves to skin or clothing. Because ticks can sneak in through openings in clothing, tuck long pants into socks, and tuck long-sleeved shirts into pants, where possible.
  2. Wear light colours to make it easier to spot dark-coloured ticks on your clothing.
  3. Use an insecticide spray containing DEET when hiking.
  4. Put a good flea-and-tick collar on your dog, and replace it when recommended. Oral and topical anti-tick medication is also available and, with climate change causing warmer winters, some vets are suggesting year-round protection.
  5. Do a close, full-body check for ticks every day in spring and summer, regardless of where you’ve been, as ticks are found in city parks and suburban yards, as well as in the country and in the woods. Check your pets, too.
  6. Avoid tick hotspots identified by Health Canada* and be especially vigilant if you do spend time in these areas.

If you are particularly concerned about ticks where you live or vacation, the TickEncounter Resource Center at the University of Rhode Island suggests you wear tick-repellent clothing outside, available from some outdoor stores, and throw untreated clothing in a hot clothes-dryer for 10 minutes when you come indoors. The heat of the dryer will kill any ticks that may have hitched a ride while you were outside. The resource centre also advises treating your shoes to prevent ticks from climbing aboard from the ground, but permethrin, the repellent it recommends, is not available in Canada.

What should you do if you get bitten by a tick?

If you find a tick attached to your skin despite your precautions, grasp it with fine-tipped tweezers as close to your skin as possible, and pull it straight out, being careful not to squeeze or crush it. Save it in a zippered sandwich bag or pill bottle, mark the date and location of the bite on the container, and hang onto it. Wash the bite with soap and water, or wipe with alcohol.

It’s important to note that you won’t automatically get Lyme disease if a tick bites you. Why? First, it may not be the type of tick that carries the Lyme bacteria. Second, it takes time for a tick carrying the bacteria to transmit it to you. That’s why it’s important to check for ticks diligently, remove them promptly and watch for symptoms carefully. If symptoms develop, bring the tick that bit you to your doctor’s appointment, so it can be sent for testing. And the earlier you get to a doctor, the better.

Ultimately, though, the best way to stay safe is to take preventative measures. By following these tick tips and using the resources provided by Health Canada and your health professional, you can curb your interactions with these pesky critters this summer.

*See the Health Canada website, Risk of Lyme disease to Canadians, for the complete list of hotspots.

Other Lyme disease resources:

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