The past year I have gotten to know Sarah Hutchison, a local Canmorite and a dear friend of my family’s. My friend Sarah has Lyme Disease, which she contracted from an infected tick and has been a crushing blow to her once profoundly active lifestyle. Because of the debilitating disease, Sarah has had to stop working and relies on disability and savings. To help Sarah with her medical and living expenses, a fundraiser, Help Sarah Tick Off Lyme Disease, is currently ongoing. The goal is to raise $30,000 so that she can reach a point of self-sufficiency where she can at least work part-time. Sarah is sharing her journey, advice and knowledge on her blog Fox n Sox, and the fundraiser can be found at www.gofundme.com/tickofflyme. Considering how little is known about the disease and the presence of it in Alberta, I asked Sarah to put together a post of the most important information people should know about protecting themselves. Thank you Sarah for sharing your story and helping protect others from Lyme’s.
Lyme disease, an inflammatory infection that spreads to humans through tick bites, is on the rise worldwide and recent surveillance studies confirm that it can be contracted in Alberta. Black-legged ticks are the main carrier.
Because of the rising prevalence, it is important to understand how to prevent exposure to ticks and what to do if you are bitten by one. So I am posting some answers to common questions about ticks and Lyme disease.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is caused by the borrelia bacteria, which commonly infects woodland animals like mice or deer. Ticks pick up the bacteria by biting infected animals, and then pass it on to their human hosts.
Common symptoms that occur with initial infection include flu-like symptoms with fatigue, head-ache, muscle ache, possibly joints aching (not necessarily swollen), and in approximately ten percent of cases, a bullseye rash. Later stage Lyme disease can present like MS, ALS, Parkinson disease like syndrome, Guillain-Barre like syndrome, cranial nerve disturbances, visual or sound hypersensitivity, seizure and other neurological conditions, cardiac (heart) abnormalities, as well as arthritis, ADHD and various difficult-to-diagnose multi-system syndromes. This is not even an exhaustive list of conditions – symptoms of Lyme disease can imitate those of other health conditions too. For a comprehensive list of symptoms see: http://canlyme.com/lyme-basics/symptoms/
Where do ticks live?
Ticks can be found in both cities and woodlands. You are most likely to encounter them in brushy, overgrown grassy, and wooded habitats, particularly in spring and early summer when nymphal ticks feed.
How can I protect myself from Lyme disease?
- You can reduce tick, deer, and rodent habitat in surrounding work or residential areas by removing leaves, tall grass, and brush from areas.
- When in potential Lyme disease tick-friendly environments, wear light colored clothing, long sleeves and pants, and tuck pants into socks.
- Long loose hair should be covered, braided or tied when venturing into areas where ticks are apt to be.
- Spray your clothing, etc. with repellent.
- When coming in from outside activities where you might have encountered ticks, throw clothing into the dryer set on high heat. This will ensure that no ticks survive on your clothing.
- Thorough tick checks should be done daily or when coming in after outside activities when temperatures are warm and you have been in areas that you may have encountered ticks.
- Check dark, moist areas: hair, cracks behind ears, knees, elbows, underarms, crotch etc.
- Take a shower and wash your hair.
- Check your pets for ticks when they come into the house.
**Note: Ticks do not survive in hot, dry areas as it causes their bodies to dry. They can be active when temperatures are above 4 degrees Celsius, even in the winter.
What do I do if I am bitten by a tick?
1. Grab the tick with narrow nose tweezers around it’s mouthparts as close to the skin as possible and firmly pull it straight out to prevent the release of gut contents (which increase the risk of infection)
2. Remove the tick promptly, as the risk of infection increases the longer the tick is attached. Do NOT suffocate it or burn it out with a match, as this also increases the chance of releasing the gut contents.
3. Then find a doctor who will prescribe preventative antibiotics immediately. It’s not worth risking infection and there are not always immediate signs.
If you would like to submit the tick to the Alberta Lyme disease surveillance study you can save the tick in a clean, empty pill bottle or double zip-lock bag. Do not add any ventilation holes to the container that is being used to put the tick(s) in. You can put more than one tick in the container if they are found on the same person or in the same general area in the environment. Add a small piece of tissue, lightly moistened with water, to prevent the tick(s) from drying out. Call ahead before visiting an AHS Environmental Health office (http://www.health.alberta.ca/documents/Tick-Surveillance-AHS-EPH-Offices.pdf) , First Nations health centre or veterinarian to submit your tick.
Can I be infected with lyme if a tick is only embedded in me briefly?
Although laboratory studies have demonstrated that it does take a significant number of hours to eject these microorganisms from the tick gut contents into a host, newer research has demonstrated the presence of these micro-organisms in the salivary apparti (mouth parts) of ticks. So theoretically infection may occur even as soon as the initial bite when ticks secrete both anti-coagulant and anti-pain substances from their salivary apparati. This is backed up by substantial clinical evidence in which people have contracted Lyme disease after having been exposed to a tick for very limited time periods, well under those previously established as sufficient enough for exposure.
Is it treatable?
Yes. If identified and treated immediately, a short (four week) course of antibiotics can completely cure the illness. As time passes, both treatment and diagnosis become more difficult. Symptoms worsen during each stage of infection, ranging from flu-like symptoms to neurological illnesses, including paralysis. With chronic Lyme disease there is not one system of the body that can be unaffected… this includes various hormone production as well. Early identification is key.
Lyme rarely shows up in bloodwork when it is first contracted, so if you have recently been bitten, do not wait for testing to start treatment. The time waiting for test results may result in the illness progressing to a later stage.
Because of a medical controversy, finding long term treatment options for later stage cases is difficult in Canada and Canadians with chronic Lyme disease often go to the US for care.
Is blood testing for lyme accurate?
All blood tests for Lyme have their strengths and weaknesses. A positive blood test can be used to strongly support a clinical diagnosis; however since lyme can remain hidden from the immune system and result in a false negative, a negative result cannot be used with accuracy to exclude the diagnosis of Lyme disease. Canada has a two-tiered testing system, first giving the Elisa, a screening tool. Even though the ELISA can miss cases of lyme, it must be positive in order for a person to receive a second test – the Western blot – which is more specific and tests for more strains. Many Canadians go to the states (i.e., Igenex in California) for the western blot if they receive a negative ELISA in Canada but exhibit possible signs of lyme.
What are surveillance studies showing about the prevalence Lyme in Alberta?
Last year Dr. James Talbot, chief medical officer of health for Alberta Health, said veterinarians submitted 960 ticks found on pets and livestock to Alberta. Of those,139 were adult blacklegged ticks. One in five of the blacklegged ticks tested positive for B. burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme. It’s unknown if Lyme is established here (infected ticks surviving the winters) or whether infected ticks are being brought in seasonally on migratory birds.
What is happening in Canada to deal with an increased emergence of lyme?
Lyme disease surveillance and research is on the Canadian agenda. Priorities are understanding the prevalence of lyme and improving assessment. Elizabeth May has recently passed a third reading of bill 422- which calls for the creation of a national Lyme disease strategy.