What you need to know about Lyme disease
With Lyme disease in the headlines as doctors in some areas of the country reporting more diagnoses, it’s a good idea to get refreshed on the basics of the illness and what to do if you think you may have had a tick bite.
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti told CTV’s Your Morning that it’s important to be on the lookout for ticks, but it’s also worth remembering that Lyme disease is not transmitted as easily as some other illnesses.
WHAT CAUSES IT
Lyme is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi which is spread by deer ticks -- most commonly the blacklegged and western blacklegged species. In order for a tick to infect a human, it needs to bite hold onto the skin for more than a day.
“When they bite you, they have to stay on you for about 24 to 36 hours before the infection can be transmitted,” he explained.
Sometimes, people feel the tick bite, but many times they do not, which is why it’s important to check over your body after a hike, to look for the tiny insects.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU FIND AN ATTACHED TICK
Chakrabarti says, oftentimes, people find the ticks while they are in the shower. They might even mistake them for a mole or birthmark.
If you do find an attached tick, don’t panic. Instead, Chakrabarti advises finding a pair of tweezers and removing the tick carefully, so that it can be easily identified in a lab.
“You want to get tweezers, then get as close to the skin as possible, then pull straight up, so you’re not crushing or tearing the tick,” he said.
HOW TO SPOT AN INFECTION
The next thing to do is watch for symptoms. For 70 to 80 per cent of those infected, the most common first symptom will be a rash that develops at the bite site.
This rash could appear a couple of days after the tick bite, but it can also take a couple of weeks to develop.
The rash is usually not painful or itchy, but it appears in a distinctive bull's-eye pattern, with a red mark in the middle, a white ring around it, and then a ring of red that spreads outward over the next few days.
Chakrabarti advises taking a photo of the rash, to show to your doctor, along with the tick itself, if possible.
HOW LYME IS TREATED
For some, infection ends with the rash. But in others, they develop flu-like symptoms with fever, fatigue and aches. When Lyme disease is diagnosed in this phase, it can be treated with antibiotics and fully cured.
Chakrabarti says the usual antibiotic for adults is doxycycline, though children and pregnant women would be prescribed amoxicillin.
If left undiagnosed or untreated, a Lyme disease infection can spread within the body, leading to arthritis-like pain in joints, memory and cognitive problems, and vision and hearing problems.
HOW TO PREVENT INFECTION
The best way to prevent infection is to cover the skin when in grassy areas where ticks live.
Wear long sleeves and pants, and apply DEET insect repellent to exposed skin, Chakrabarti advises. Anything that will prevent mosquito bites will also prevent tick bites.
WHAT REMAINS UNKNOWN ABOUT LYME
There is still much that doctors don’t understand about Lyme disease, such as why some people become ill and others do not. In May, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott announced $4-million to begin a new research framework to gather more data about Lyme prevalence, and how to improve diagnosis and treatment.
The University of Guelph in Ontario is also establishing a lab with a $1.4-million grant to better understand Lyme, including looking at why some develop persistent symptoms.