Protect against Lyme disease
It’s supper time, and you’re on the menu. Warmer weather brings out the bugs — and the diseases like Lyme disease that they can carry.
Summer is the season to be outdoors at the campsite or cottage — often baring plenty of skin — but seasonal risks are only part of the problem. Experts are blaming climate change for Lyme disease becoming more prevalent into North America. Basically, warmer average temperatures make a better habitat for ticks and tick-bearing animals like deer and birds — and experts now warn we can expect to see a continuing increase in the coming decades. Right now no one can pinpoint exactly how many Canadians and Americans are affected each year because the disease is thought to be under-diagnosed and under-reported.
With trouble ahead, health advocates like the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation (CanLyme) are calling on the government to create and implement a new national strategy on Lyme disease. A private member’s bill on Lyme disease was introduced by Green Party Leader and MP Elizabeth May on June 21.
“I have many friends and constituents who are living with this terrible disease,” said May in a release on the Green Party website. “We need to make absolutely sure that all Canadian doctors are equipped with the tools and knowledge to effectively diagnose and treat patients suffering from Lyme.”
However, while we wait for the government and the medical profession to do their part, it’s up to us to understand the risks and the warning signs.
Lyme disease: What is it?
If you’re not familiar with Lyme disease, it’s a condition caused by a type of bacterium — Borrelia burgdorferi, to be exact — that’s carried by small animals like birds, squirrels and mice. Ticks pick up the disease by feeding on an infected animal, and then they can transmit it to humans and other animals when they bite. There’s no evidence that animals can transmit the disease to each other or to humans, and the infection can’t be passed from person to person except in the case of pregnant women passing the illness to their unborn children.
In Canada, Lyme disease is carried by two species of ticks: the western blacklegged tick (found in British Columbia) and the blacklegged tick — also known as the deer tick — which is found elsewhere in Canada. While well-established populations of deer ticks have been found in parts of Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia, infected ticks can appear anywhere in Canada because they’re carried by migrating birds.
Lyme disease can cause a variety of flu-like symptoms that get worse over time and spread to other parts of the body. The infection can impact the cardiovascular system, nervous system, digestive system, muscles and joints. The signs can come and go — sometimes going into periods of remission lasting months or even years. That’s why Lyme disease is often mistaken for other causes like certain forms of arthritis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, lupus, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), thyroid disease, depression and even Alzheimer’s (to name a few).
However, unlike these chronic conditions, Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics — though it’s much easier to treat before the disease becomes well established.
No tick, no problem? Not so. According to the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, less than half of people who contract Lyme disease saw a tick or were aware they had been bitten. While a rash is the often the first symptom, not all people get one — or it may be hidden under body hair and go unnoticed.
Other initial symptoms include:
– Fatigue. (Which can become extreme as the disease progresses, and include a general feeling of weakness.)
– Fever or chills.
– Swollen lymph nodes.
– Muscle or joint pain. (It may feel like arthritis.)
As the infection progresses, people may also experience:
– Blurry vision.
– Ringing or buzzing in the ears.
– Upset stomach, heartburn or indigestion.
– Heart palpitations.
– Chest pain or difficulty breathing.
– Mental confusion or memory loss.
– Depression or anxiety.
– Decreased libido, or pain and symptoms affecting the reproductive organs.
If think you’ve been bitten or you experience these symptoms after being in an area where you could have been exposed to ticks, see a doctor as soon as possible. Don’t be alarmed — these symptoms could be due to less serious causes — but do be aware.
Tips for prevention
Sounds unpleasant? Here’s how you can avoid the disease:
– Stay clear of brush and bushes — or use extra caution in these areas. Ticks love to hide in dark, moist places — especially in heavily wooded areas, tall grasses and shrubs. Children and pets should play elsewhere, and you may want to store equipment and set up that swing set away from these areas. If you’re hiking or working, be sure to take extra precautions.
– Clean up your yard. You can control ticks around your home by keeping your yard clear of places they love to hide like humid areas, bushes, tall grass and leaves. Make sure items like wood are properly stored in dry areas, and keep bird feeders and playground equipment clean — as well as the surrounding area.
– Cover up. As with mosquitoes, clothing can provide a physical barrier to keep bugs out. When you’re going to be in problem areas, wear long sleeves, pants, socks and close-toed shoes. And tuck in: your shirt into your pants, and your pants into your socks.
Does colour matter? Yes — ticks are dark brown, so they’re easier to spot on light coloured clothing.
– Use insect repellent with DEET (if appropriate) on skin or clothing. Read the label carefully and follow the directions.
– Spot check. Check for ticks on yourself and your companions (including children and pets) before you go back inside. It may set you squirming, but make sure to check crevices where ticks like to hide — like armpits, bellybutton, behind the knees, the hair line, groin and waist.
What are you looking for? Black-legged ticks can be red or brown, and can be as tiny as the head of a pin. (For pictures, click here.)
You might not see the tick, but you could see a suspicious little red bump that indicates the presence of a tick. Don’t attempt to pop it — but do get it looked at by a professional.
– Get vaccinated . Sorry, this step is for your four-legged friends only. Talk to your veterinarian about whether your pet needs a vaccine. .
– Protect yourself while travelling . These precautions aren’t just for home. Some travellers pick up the infection while they’re on vacation, even in the United States. Make insect avoidance part of your travel health strategy.
If you see a tick…
… Don’t let it linger. It can take up to 30 minutes for a tick to fully attach itself and begin feeding, and with every minute that goes by increases the risk of contracting Lyme disease from an infected tick.
Here’s what you should do:
– Remove it right away. Experts recommend finding an experienced person to do the job, if possible. If you can’t, grasp the tick with a small pair of tweezers (preferably tick-removal tweezers) as close to the skin as possible and pull straight out. Try not to squeeze or kill the tick while removing it — experts warn that improper removal can contribute to infection.
– Save the tick . It may be tempting to squash the bug, but don’t do it! Put the (preferably alive) tick in a plastic bag, pill vial or jar with a blade of grass or moist cotton ball and call your health care provider right away. You may need the tick for testing and live ticks yield faster results than dead ones.
Some experts also advise taking note of the day and time you were bitten (for future reference).
– Clean the bite area. Give the area a wash with soap and water and disinfect with rubbing alcohol (if you choose).
– Keep an eye out for symptoms . If you feel unwell and show the symptoms of Lyme disease, contact your doctor. Remember, the rash is often the first sign to appear — and it should be looked at right away.
ON THE WEB
For more information, visit:
CanLyme.com (Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation)
Lyme Disease (Health Canada)
TimeforLyme.org (a U.S.-based advocacy group)
Lyme Disease Fact Sheet (Public Health Agency of Canada)
Lyme Disease (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
If you’re concerned about Lyme disease in your area, talk to your doctor and pet’s veterinarian and check with your local health unit.