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Lyme Disease - A Bullseye We Don't Aim For

A major threat to outdoor enjoyment and the health of those who love to spend time in it has been moving farther into our area: Lyme disease. If you have never heard of Lyme disease but spend time in the wilderness, you need to make yourself aware of it. Lyme disease is a serious disease caused by a bacterium and is transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected tick.

In our area the bacterium is spread by the “blacklegged” or “deer” tick. They can be anywhere from the size of a poppy seed to the size of a pea, depending upon whether it has fed recently. The deer tick is so named because its preferred host is a deer, but it can also be found on many rodents or even migratory birds. Although deer are the preferred host of the deer tick and can get a bad reputation as a result, it is not from deer that the ticks become infected, but rather from infected rodents. Deer can become infected with the disease but they don't carry large numbers of the bacteria. They do not pass it from one to another or from deer to humans. In spite of the fact that they can carry large numbers of ticks, there are no documented cases of people acquiring diseases or parasites from dressing deer. There is also no evidence to suggest that deer diseases or parasites can be transmitted through eating venison.

According to the Canadian Government, blacklegged tick populations have become established in the southern part of New Brunswick and parts of Nova Scotia. Whether it is because of climate change or another reason, the ticks are moving into our areas and we must be aware of them.

Real World Blacklegged Ticks

A tick finds a host like deer, or humans and then bites, often embedding its entire head into the host. The tick is looking for a blood meal and will become engorged and swollen as it feeds. It is during this time that a person can become infected, so prompt removal is very important. Not all blacklegged ticks are carrying the bacteria, but you still must be cautious. Even if you are bit by an infected tick, some estimates put the risk of transmission to a human at about 1% of bites.

When you are infected by a blacklegged tick carrying the Lyme disease bacteria, you may develop a red “bullseye” rash that has received much publicity. At other times you may see an entirely red circle, and still other times there is no mark. Some studies estimate only about 50% of cases of infection show any kind of rash. Because the bites are painless and once the tick has fed it will drop off the host, some people don't even realize they have been bitten. Initial symptoms vary from person to person and some may not experience any early symptoms at all, making Lyme disease very difficult to diagnose. Some may exhibit a fever or a skin rash after the infection while others may suffer severe symptoms several weeks after the bite. According to Health Canada, symptoms can include one or a combination of the following list, with varying degrees of severity:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever or chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle and joint pain, spasms, or weakness
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Skin rash
  • Cognitive dysfunction, dizziness
  • Nervous system disorders
  • Arthritis and arthritic symptoms
  • Heart palpitations

Spending time in the outdoors throughout the Maritimes and the east coast has given me personal experience with these ticks. My family had a summer place in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia and the ticks were everywhere there. Even taking precautions I had multiple bites from them but removed them promptly. This past summer however on a camping trip in southern New Brunswick, I had one on me that I didn't remove immediately, and may have stayed attached for up to 24 hours before I found and removed it. There was a red mark at the bite location and I immediately sought medical attention. Treatment for Lyme disease involves antibiotics and they put me on a prescription right away. I saved the tick and they sent it away to test for the bacteria letting me know I would be informed whether or not it was positive for the bacteria causing Lyme disease, and whether to continue with the medication or stop. I received a call later saying it had been positive and that I should keep taking it. I didn't exhibit any symptoms of Lyme disease and believe it was treated properly and I am fine. Two of my coworkers who spend time in the wilderness had similar experiences in 2014 and also were informed the tick they were bitten with was infected for Lyme disease causing bacteria. All of us have experienced no further issues after prompt diagnosis and treatment.

Ticks compared to the size of a dime

Untreated, symptoms can last for years and can include arthritis, neurological problems, numbness, and paralysis. Fatalities from Lyme disease do occur, but they are not common. Unfortunately because these symptoms are similar to other diseases and infections, they can be ignored or even misdiagnosed.

The best precaution against the threat of Lyme disease is prevention. Wear proper clothing and check yourself if you've spent time in an area where blacklegged ticks may be present. Pesticides such as deet can be a deterrent to help keep you safe from the ticks. If the weather allows for it, you can do things such as tucking in sleeves and pant legs to protect yourself from the risk of a tick bite.

Now that winter seems to have finally broken its icy grasp on us and spring may have finally arrived, many of us will head into the wilderness to spend time fishing, hunting, and enjoying the great outdoors! Be vigilant and aware of the threat of Lyme disease. Your health and future depends on it!

2015-06-15 07:06:46


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