What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is a tick transmitted disease of people and animals that is caused by a microscopic bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. In nature, Lyme disease is most often associated with mammals such as white footed mice, deer mice, and deer, as well as birds. In people, the symptoms of this illness greatly vary. As a result, Lyme disease has been called “the great imitator” as symptoms can be similar to those of other diseases. The infection often starts out as a skin rash with or without flu-like symptoms, and can progress to arthritic, cardiac, or neurological disease if not properly diagnosed and treated.
The most common symptom of Lyme disease is a skin rash that occurs at the location of the tick bite within 2 to 30 days. The rash often takes on a bull’s eye appearance beginning as a flat or raised red area with partial central clearing that slowly expands out from the site of the bite over several days. If left untreated the rash will disappear within 3 weeks.
Flu-like symptoms may also occur at this stage of the disease. These symptoms include headache, chills, pains in the joints, loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, fever, aching muscles, stiff neck, sore throat, and vomiting. If left untreated, these symptoms will also disappear within 10 days. The later stages of Lyme disease can involve arthritic, cardiac, and neurological complications. These symptoms can occur weeks, months or even years after the initial symptoms have disappeared.
How does Lyme disease occur?
Lyme disease occurs from the bite of a certain species of tick. The tick known to transmit this infection in Ontario is the blacklegged tick Ixodes scapularis (also known as lxodes damini, or the northern deer tick). This tick can be found on tall grass, and brush in woodland areas. Ixodes scapularis can be no bigger than a pinhead, and since its bite is painless, many victims of Lyme disease are unaware they have ever been bitten.
For an infection to occur, the tick must remain attached to its victim for more than 24 hours.
How do I remove a tick?
If you find a tick attached, use fine-tipped tweezers to grab the tick close to the skin and gently pull straight up. Wash the area with soap and water, and put the tick in a dry container and bring it to your local public health unit or your health care provider for it to be sent for testing for Lyme disease. In addition, follow up with your health care provider to determine if you need treatment.
How is Lyme disease treated?
If detected early, Lyme disease can be easily treated with antibiotics. Later stages of disease may require more aggressive antibiotic therapy. Anyone who has been bitten by a tick and develops the above-mentioned symptoms should contact their doctor. If possible, save the tick and submit it to your local health unit for analysis.
How can Lyme disease be prevented?
- Wear light coloured clothing outdoors. It makes ticks easier to spot.
- Wear long pants and a long sleeved shirt.
- Wear closed footwear and socks, never sandals, when walking through fields or woods.
- Tuck your pants into your socks.
- Use a tick repellent containing DEET. Apply it to your skin and outer clothing.
- Put a tick and flea collar on your pets and check them periodically.
- Search your body well for ticks after walking through fields or woods. Pay special attention to areas such as the groin, scalp and armpits.