What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread to humans by blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks. Each year, ticks are heavily distributed across Canada and the United States by migratory birds. In 2013, 20 percent of the blacklegged ticks collected in Alberta tested positive for the Lyme disease bacteria, called Borrelia burgdorferi.
What further complicates the picture is that ticks can transmit many other pathogens, so someone can be infected with more than just Lyme disease by a single tick. These co-infections lead to more complicated and more severe illness. In order for a person to contract Lyme disease and any co-infection, a tick must remain attached to the skin for as little as eight to twenty-four hours.
How is Lyme disease diagnosed?
Diagnosis is usually based on symptoms and on whether the person has had a tick bite or has engaged in outdoor activities in an endemic area. The medical community considers the primary symptom to be the typical bull’s-eye rash, but this skin lesion appears in fewer than 50 percent of patients. In early stages of the disease, patients may have flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, headache, fever, muscle aches and neck stiffness. In the following weeks, these can progress to joint, cardiac, cognitive and neurological symptoms.
The two main difficulties in diagnosing Lyme disease are that the symptoms are not consistent across infected people and they can imitate many other conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia. Furthermore, Lyme disease is not well recognized within the conventional medical system, and there is a lack of reliable laboratory testing. This can delay timely diagnosis and treatment and lead to a debilitating, multisystem chronic illness that could have been treatable in its early stages.
Currently, the incidence of Lyme disease is quite low, but figures may be skewed by the possibility that it may be underdiagnosed.
How can you protect yourself from Lyme disease?
Although the risk of contracting Lyme disease is not very high, the best way to protect yourself is to exercise caution and practice good prevention techniques, especially between May and September or when traveling to endemic areas.
The most important thing to do is to protect yourself from tick bites. See the sidebar for tips.
What should you do if you find a tick?
If you find a tick attached to your skin, follow these steps:
- With tweezers, gently grasp the tick’s head and mouth parts as close to your skin as possible.
- Slowly pull the tick straight out—do not jerk or twist it.
- Do not try not to squash it.
- Do not apply matches, cigarettes or petroleum jelly to the tick, as these may cause an infected tick to release bacteria into the wound.
Lastly, contact a health-care practitioner who is trained in recognizing Lyme disease and other co-infections as soon as you discover a tick bite or develop any of the typical symptoms following outdoor activities.
Tips for avoiding tick bites
Follow these tips to protect yourself from Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses when you’re enjoying the outdoors this spring and summer.
- Cover up as much skin as you can when you’re in wooded or grassy areas. Wear a hat, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants with the legs tucked into your socks. It’s a good idea to wear light-coloured clothes so ticks are easier to see.
- Use a bug spray that contains the chemical DEET to repel ticks. Spray it on your clothing only and not directly on your skin. Only use this bug spray if you will be in the bush or in the forest where there is an increased risk of tick bite. DEET is a potentially very carcinogenic chemical, so please use as indicated here.
- Check yourself for ticks after you’ve been outside.
- Check your pets for ticks after they’ve been outside. You can’t get Lyme disease from your pet, but your pet can bring infected ticks inside. These ticks can fall off your pet and attach themselves to you.
Anouk Chaumont, ND, graduated from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine and practices in Grande Prairie at Anodyne Chiropractic and Sports Therapy. She helps people with a wide variety of conditions, from acute infections to chronic disease, and she is passionate about whole family health.