What you need to know about Lyme disease

What are the common Lyme disease symptoms? How do you get it? We answer all of your questions about this serious infection and share the latest research.

What you need to know about Lyme disease
Lyme disease is a serious illness that's on the rise in Canada, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Those at risk include anyone who lives, works or plays in close proximity to blacklegged ticks, which transmit the disease, and are currently found in most southern areas of Canada, including parts of Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. If Lyme disease isn't identified and treated early, it can cause serious health issues.

"We still don't know all there is to know about Lyme disease," says Jim Wilson, the founder and president of the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation (CanLyme). "There are multiple strains of Lyme disease in Canada, but the standard tests aren't capable of detecting all of them."

Here's the lowdown on what we do know about this potentially deadly disease:

How you get it: When an infected tick attaches itself to a person's or an animal's skin by its mouth, it injects the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, which causes Lyme disease. The bite is usually painless, so unless you see the tick, you may never know you or your pet were bitten. A tick can remain in the spot for up to a week before falling off. Blacklegged ticks can be active all year long, but the risk of getting bitten is highest in the spring and summer months, then again from late September to December. It's important to be aware that dogs and cats can get Lyme disease, too; ask your vet for information.

There's even some research that you can get Lyme disease through unprotected sexual intercourse. "The evidence strongly suggests that you don't have to be outdoorsy to get Lyme disease, you just have to have unprotected sex with someone who's outdoorsy," says Calgary microbiologist Marianne Middelveen, one of the researchers behind a small international study published in 2014. "While we don't want to frighten people, we want them to be aware that Lyme disease transmission may be more complex than previously believed."

What to do if you find a tick: If possible, have a doctor remove it. If that isn't an option, use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers and grasp where the tick's mouth has entered the skin, then pull firmly outward. "Don't pull the body, because the mouth could be left in the skin," says Wilson.

Once the tick is out, don't kill it—instead, put it in an empty pill bottle or a sealable plastic baggie with a damp paper towel to keep the tick alive. Then take it to your family doctor or contact CanLyme to find out how to have it tested for Lyme disease.

Symptoms: Common signs include fatigue; fever or chills; headache; muscle and joint pain, spasms or weakness; numbness or tingling; swollen lymph nodes; skin rash (it often looks like a bull's-eye); dizziness; nervous-system disorders; arthritis and arthritic symptoms; and heart palpitations.

Treatment: If caught early, Lyme disease can be effectively treated with two to four weeks of antibiotics. Depending on your symptoms, or if you're diagnosed at a later stage, you may require a longer course of antibiotics. Some people experience symptoms that continue more than six months after treatment. Research continues into the causes of the persistent systems and the best way to treat them.

Long-term health impacts:
If Lyme disease is left untreated, symptoms can last years and include recurring arthritis, neurological problems, numbness and paralysis. Although not common, deaths from Lyme disease have been reported. "Since Lyme disease is often misdiagnosed," says Wilson, "we have no idea how many people are actually dying of this disease in Canada."

Prevention: If you or your children are going to be outside where you know there might be ticks, wear closed-toe shoes, long-sleeved shirts and pants. Pull your socks over your pant legs to prevent ticks from crawling up your legs. Wear light-coloured clothing to make it easier to spot the bugs. Use insect repellents that contain DEET or Icaridin on clothing and exposed skin. (But make sure to read labels carefully before applying). Shower or bathe within two hours of being outdoors to wash away loose ticks. Before you wash your clothes, put them in the dryer at regular heat for 20 minutes, which will kill the ticks. Do daily full-body checks on yourself, your kids and your pets. "Keep in mind that ticks like to hide in cracks and crevices, including private parts," says Wilson.

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