Lyme disease might sound like something out of a medical history book – like Polio – but it’s no historical relic. The incidence of Lyme Disease is actually on the increase, and is becoming a problem in Canada. Climate change may be in part responsible for the increased range of infected ticks.1
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that’s caused by borrelia bacteria. It is a vector-borne disease that is primarily transmitted by the black-legged tick. Ticks primarily inhabit forested areas – trees, shrubs, tall grass, and leaves are all habitats for ticks. Outdoor activities like hiking or camping or even golfing can potentially expose you or your pets to the ticks that carry the bacteria.
As Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted through ticks, there is no bulletproof way of preventing infection short of completely avoiding areas where ticks reside. Risk is mostly dependent on geography – where ticks are infected with the bacteria. You can take a more detailed view of relative risk for Canadians here.
Understandably for most people, this is no way to live life, and unpragmatic. However, a few prevention tips can greatly reduce your risk of getting bit by ticks (and mosquitoes which are also annoying) while still enjoying the outdoors.
- Bug sprays with DEET can help
- Wear long sleeves (it serves as a double protection against UV damage as well)
- Wear long pants and tuck your shirt in to leave less room to be exposed
- If you’re hiking, stay on the trail
- After the hike, check yourself, and equipment for ticks
- Remember to shower afterward
- Protect your clothes by putting them in high heat in the dryer
- Check your dog – pay particular attention to the areas between the toes, inside the ears, and between the legs; these are easy to miss
- If you have a yard, maintain it well to make it less hospitable for ticks. Tall grass and brush should be cleared out, and if you stock wood piles, keep them dry and exposed to the sun.
What if you find ticks?
Finding ticks is never any fun. They feed off of the blood of their host organisms and have the potential to carry a host of tick-borne diseases. However, the chances of a single bite or any tick carrying Lyme disease are relatively low. Research seems to indicate that a long feeding period increases the chance of transmission. Remove the ticks from your body and your environment as soon as you find them (check your equipment and your pets if you hike with them) to minimize the chances of infection.
- If you find a tick attached to you, use tweezers to pull them out gently. Grab the tick as close to the skin as possible without crushing the tick.
- Wash the area where the tick bit you carefully with soap and water.
- If you notice a reddening of the skin that resembles a bull’s eye mark within a week where you got bit, this is the best time to see your doctor.
- Other symptoms may include flu-like symptoms, joint and muscle soreness, fatigue, or headaches.
- Prompt treatment will reduce the chances of disease progression and make a recovery much easier.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Diagnosis isn’t always straightforward as Lyme Disease symptoms can vary from person to person and is similar to many other common illnesses. Generally, laboratory testing will be required to confirm a diagnosis, but your doctor may ask about your possible history of exposure to infected ticks, as well as your symptoms.
Once Lyme Disease is diagnosed, a 2 to 4-week course of antibiotic treatment will usually take care of the problem. For Canadians, there is a risk map available to assess high-risk areas where infected ticks are more abundant. If you live in or travel to a high-risk area, you need to be extra vigilant in taking steps to minimize your chance of infection and to review any potential symptoms if you believe that you may have been infected.
If you didn’t know a thing about Lyme Disease until today, you’re definitely not alone. At the same time, don’t let the fear of ticks keep you cooped up indoors. The consequences of Lyme disease can be serious. Depending on where you live, it is something that you definitely should keep in mind. At the same time, relative risk can be significantly lowered with the right precautions.