by: Elysia Arseneau, staff writer
Lyme disease is a debilitating illness which often gets missed as a diagnosis. Some doctors don't believe it's in the Ottawa region, some don't believe it's in Ontario, and some don't believe it exists in Canada. The truth is that it is very much present in Ontario - including regions surrounding Ottawa - and too many people suffer from the disease without ever getting treatments.
Click to view Public Health Ontario's "Ontario Lyme Disease Map 2016 Estimated Risk Areas" (updated June 2016).
Lyme disease and its symptoms
Lyme disease is an infections disease caused by Borrelia bacteria: it is spread through the bite of infected ticks. The blacklegged tick (also known as the deer tick) spreads the disease in mid-Atlantic and eastern coast, whereas the western blacklegged tick spreads the disease on the Pacific coast. Early treatment of Lyme disease is critical, but the symptoms often go unnoticed until the disease has progressed.
About a week after infection, some people might notice a red, painless, non-itchy "bull's eye" shaped rash where the tick made contact. However, anywhere from 25-50% of people do not develop this rash, which is one of the reasons why people do not know that they have been infected until much later. If untreated, other early symptoms of Lyme disease can include extreme fatigue, headaches, and fever, but these all vary from person to person. The bacteria also attack the nervous system, which may lead to problems walking, feeling dizzy, and nerve pain. The heart and digestive system can also be affected.
There is no evidence that Lyme disease can be transmissible between people or by other animals, but pets can certainly bring infected ticks into your home or yard (so make sure you check them too!). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is also no credible evidence that Lyme disease can be transmitted through air, food, water, or from the bites of mosquitoes, flies, fleas, or lice.
Is it Lyme disease?
Diagnosis is based upon a combination of symptoms, history of tick exposure, and possibly testing for specific antibodies in the blood. Sadly, blood tests are often negative in the early stages of the disease, and testing of individual ticks is not always useful. According to the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, testing for Lyme disease is not an exact science: patients often receive negative test results when the disease is actually present, and (though less common) false positives are also possible.
As of this writing, testing for Lyme disease in Canada isn't very accurate, especially if not caught during the early stage. To avoid misdiagnosis, it’s critical that you identify your symptoms and are tested by a doctor as soon as possible. NutriChem offers more specific testing only available across the border.
Living with Lyme disease is something that many people face, every day, and it can be a constant struggle. You probably know people who have been infected and affected by Lyme disease, but if you don't you can read about Napanee's own Avril Lavigne's struggle and comeback here. Make sure to watch her moving video that is both heartbreaking and inspiring.
Prevention is the key
Since Lyme disease diagnosis is tricky and treatment is most successful when started early (difficult when diagnosis is tricky!), Lyme disease prevention is the key.
Thankfully, Lyme disease is entirely preventable! By taking the right precautions and educating those around you, you can effectively protect yourself and your loved ones from Lyme. Here's how.
1. Reduce the chance of tick exposure
The best way to prevent infection is to avoid tick-infested areas whenever possible. In the spring and early summer, nymph ticks are feeding; adult ticks are a bigger threat in the fall. Ticks favour moist, shaded environments, especially leafy wooded areas and overgrown grassy habitats.
2. Wear a long-sleeved shirt and pants
Although avoiding tick-infested areas is the best way to prevent Lyme disease, certain occupations and recreational activities, not to mention the proximity of residential areas to woodlands, can make "stay away from the forest" impossible! If you plan on going into the woods, cover your body with long-sleeved shirt and pants and tuck your pants into your socks. This is an effective way of ensuring that ticks cannot attach to your skin.
3. Wear light coloured clothes
Since ticks are darker in colour, wearing light coloured clothing makes spotting ticks much easier!
4. Wear closed-toed footwear
It might seem simplistic, but it has to be said. Open-toed shoes and sandals are an invitation for ticks. Cover up!
5. Check your shoes, clothes and skin often
Even if you are fully clothed, ticks will climb upwards until they find an area of exposed skin. Therefore, make sure to occasionally stop what you are doing in the woods/grassy area, and check yourself and whoever you are with. If you drove to your outdoorsy location, make sure to check yourself before getting back into your car to avoid transporting any ticks home with you.
6. Stay in the middle of the trail
Walking in the middle of the pathway or trail is a good way of preventing your body from brushing up against bushes and branches that could have ticks on them. Avoid low-lying brush and grass as best as possible.
7. Apply insect repellent
Although it's absolutely awful for the environment and I'm hesitant to even include this point, application of insect re-pellents that contain N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET) in concentrations of at least 20% is an effective (but not guaranteed) way of keeping ticks away.
8. Check your pets
Ticks go after all animals: check your pets! Here are some tips for how to properly check your furry friends.
9. At home, check yourself then take a bath
Once you're home, have someone check any exposed skin for ticks, then have a bath. Bathing within 2 hours after exposure may be effective because ticks can take longer than 2 hours to fully attach themselves.
If you remove a tick quickly (within 24 hours), you can greatly reduce your chances of getting Lyme disease. It takes some time for the Lyme disease-causing bacteria to move from the tick to the host. The longer the tick is attached, the greater the risk of acquiring disease from it.
If you do find a tick, remove it right away and consider sending it to your local health authority such as Ottawa Public Health. The Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation has a fantastic resource here that outlines how to safely and properly remove ticks, including videos.
Visit your medical practitioner to determine whether you have been infected by Lyme disease after a tick bite.
Happy and safe hiking!
[A version of this article appeared in our July 2015 newsletter. It has been updated for content and clarity.]
"Clinical practice. Lyme disease." (PDF). The New England Journal of Medicine 370 (18): 1724–31.
"Lyme disease transmission". cdc.gov. January 11, 2013.
"Lyme basics". canlyme.com
"How to check for and remove ticks". dogsandticks.com
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