Lyme disease is a serious disease caused by the bite of infected small insect-like parasites called blacklegged ticks. Lyme disease can have severe symptoms but it can be treated
While not all blacklegged ticks carry Lyme disease, populations of infected blacklegged ticks are growing. This means that the risk of contracting Lyme disease is on the rise across Canada. There are several ways to reduce the risk when spending time outdoors in areas where there may be ticks. Ticks can be as small as a poppy seed and their bites are usually painless, so you may not know you've been bitten. That's why it's important to be on the lookout for ticks and the symptoms of Lyme disease.
How ticks spread Lyme disease
Ticks are small biting arachnids (related to scorpions, spiders and mites) that feed on blood by attaching their mouthparts to people and animals. Ticks get infected with borrelia burgdorferi when they feed on mice, squirrels, birds and other small animals that carry the bacterium -- and it can spread to humans through an infected tick bite. People and pets can pick up ticks by brushing against vegetation like grass, shrubs and leaf litter.
Blacklegged ticks are very small. Before feeding, adult females are approximately 3-5 mm in length and red and dark brown in colour. Females are a little larger than males and when they're full of blood, they can be as big as a grape. Males never expand in size because they do not engorge on blood. Larvae and nymphs (the juvenile life stages) are smaller still and, when unfed, are lighter in colour than adult ticks.
The greatest risk of getting Lyme disease is during the spring and summer months. Ticks might also be active in the winter, if the winter is mild with little snow.
Places you are most likely to get Lyme disease
Blacklegged ticks are most often found in forests and the overgrown areas between the woods and open spaces, although it is possible to be bitten outside of these areas. Those who participate in outdoor activities like hunting, camping, fishing and hiking may be at a greater risk for tick bites by spending time in areas where ticks tend to live.
The Public Health Agency of Canada works with provinces and territories to identify where populations of infected blacklegged ticks have been established or are spreading.
What you can do to avoid tick bites
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to prevent tick bites. Here are some ways to protect yourself if you venture into forests or overgrown areas between the woods and open spaces:
Cover up by wearing protective clothing like 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 clothes to make spotting ticks easier
Use insect repellents containing DEET or Icaridin on your skin and clothing -- always read and follow label directions
Shower or bathe within two hours of being outdoors to wash away loose ticks
Do daily "full body" checks for ticks on yourself, your children and pets
What to do if you get bit by a blacklegged tick
If you find a tick attached to your skin, make sure you remove it carefully as follows:
Use clean tweezers, grasp the head as close to the skin as possible and pull slowly straight out.
Afterwards, wash the bite site with soap and water or disinfect with alcohol hand sanitizer.
If mouthparts break off, remove them with tweezers or, if you are unable to remove them easily, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
If possible, save the tick that bit you in a clean container or plastic bag and record the date you were bit.
Watch out for symptoms of Lyme disease in the weeks after.
If you feel unwell, contact your health care provider right away.
If you have saved the tick, bring it to your medical appointment as it may help the doctor in their assessment of your illness.
The symptoms of Lyme disease
Initial symptoms differ from person to person, which makes Lyme disease very difficult to diagnose. Some will experience mild symptoms like fever or a skin rash soon after being bitten, while others may suffer severe symptoms, but not for weeks after the bite.
Signs and symptoms of Lyme disease can include one or a combination of the following with varying degrees of severity:
FatigueFever or chills
HeadacheMuscle and joint pain
spasms, or weakness
Numbness or tingling
Swollen lymph nodes
Cognitive dysfunction, dizziness
Nervous system disorders
Arthritis and arthritic symptoms
Untreated, symptoms can last years and include recurring arthritis and neurological problems, numbness and paralysis. Although not common, fatalities from Lyme disease have been reported.
If you have symptoms of Lyme disease, contact your healthcare provider right away.
How Lyme disease is diagnosed
Getting a diagnosis of Lyme disease can be difficult as symptoms vary from person to person, and can be similar to other illnesses. Your healthcare provider will likely:
Examine your symptoms
Determine if you were potentially exposed to Lyme-infected blacklegged ticks by asking about your recent activities
Request (if necessary), laboratory blood testing to support a clinical diagnosis
Consult a health care provider as soon as possible if you have symptoms or if you feel unwell in the weeks following a tick bite. The sooner you get treatment, the more rapid will be your recovery.
Treatment for Lyme disease
Lyme disease can be effectively treated with 2 to 4 weeks of antibiotics. The sooner treatments start, the better.
Depending on your symptoms, and if you are diagnosed in the later stages of the disease, you may require a longer course of antibiotics. Some people experience symptoms that continue more than 6 months after treatment. Research continues into the causes of these persistent symptoms and methods of treatment.
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