Few of us who grew up in Canada recall “tick checks” as children, where our parents would examine us for signs of tick bites after a day outdoors. Understanding tick-borne diseases is not usually on our summer priority list, but this has to change. Ticks infected with Lyme Disease-causing bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) are present in Kingston and pose a risk for contraction of serious chronic neurological illness. Diagnosing the illness is very challenging, so that Lyme disease is grossly under-reported.
Ticks are tiny insects, (even as tiny as a typed period on a written page), that live in wooded areas and on animals, possibly including outdoor pets. Infected ticks can transmit harmful bacteria to people through a bite though most people exposed to these bacteria never contract the corresponding disease. The very few who do contract Lyme disease often have a difficult time obtaining an accurate diagnosis.
Public health two-stage testing for Lyme disease will only catch the illness in approximately 65% of cases. More thorough testing is available by some laboratories in the United States with an MD or ND requisition (see www.igenex.com), but these can be quite costly and are still not 100% accurate. Much of the diagnosis for Lyme disease is clinical, meaning that other causes for the symptoms are ruled out, and symptoms are consistent with those of Lyme disease.
Many healthcare practitioners who screen for Lyme disease expect to see a characteristic non-itchy “bulls-eye” rash, though this occurs in less than 50% of the people with Lyme disease. Other symptoms of Lyme disease, including fatigue, joint pain, Bell’s Palsy, and foggy-thinking, mimic so many other illnesses that the disease commonly goes undiagnosed or even misdiagnosed as Fibromyalgia or Multiple Sclerosis, for example. The physiological stress and immune suppression caused by the chronic infection is associated with the development of other chronic illnesses, including depression, thyroid disease, and Crohn’s disease.
Early diagnosis is critical to successful recovery. If you suspect that you have Lyme disease, speak to a “Lyme-literate” health practitioner. Antibiotic treatment is often indicated, but not always required, and a holistic treatment approach that strengthens immune function, reduces inflammation, and heals damaged tissues and glands, may significantly reduce the chance of disease relapse, which is common with antibiotic treatment alone.
Prevention and quick diagnosis are critical! Here are some things to keep in mind this summer:
1. Wear light-coloured, long-sleeved clothing (with pants tucked into socks), when outdoors in tall grasses and wooded areas, so that ticks are more visible.
2. DEET is a proven tick repellant. Lemon eucalyptus extract may also be an effective tick repellant and safer for chemically sensitive individuals.
3. If you find a tick attached to your skin, gently remove it with a pair of tweezers (by the head, as close to the skin as possible) and seal it in a container. Apply antiseptic to the bite. Take the tick to public health for testing for Lyme disease and co-infections. Symptoms may appear anywhere from 3 days to several months later, but most commonly appear within 1 to 3 weeks. Contraction of the Lyme bacteria is unlikely if the tick was attached to the skin for less than 20 hours.
4. If you develop a rash and are uncertain, take a photo and have a healthcare practitioner look at it.
5. Keep your immune system up! Any chronic condition puts significant strain on your immune system so that battling acute infections such as Lyme is more challenging. Work with a health practitioner to understand where your immune imbalances exist, and how to support them.
6. If your spouse has ever been diagnosed with Lyme disease, and you have chronic symptoms that may be caused by Lyme disease, request a thorough evaluation by a healthcare practitioner. Some preliminary (and controversial) research suggests that the bacteria can be transmitted through body fluids, including during sexual intercourse. The research is convincing enough to warrant being taken seriously.
Education is key. For more information about Lyme disease, please visit the International Lyme and Associated Diseases website, www.ilads.org.