Lyme Disease Awareness Month: Lyme Disease Prevention Tips
We are now into week three of International Lyme Disease Awareness month. This month, I started off discussing what Lyme Disease is and what it’s like to be a Lyme patient in Canada. This week, I would like to talk about how to prevent Lyme Disease in the first place, and what to do if you find a tick attached to your skin.
When I contracted Lyme Disease in 2006, it took me 5-years to get a clear diagnosis. I had never heard of Lyme Disease before, and not one of the 8 medical specialists I saw ever thought to test for it. It was by pure serendipity that I even heard the term Lyme Disease: I overheard a conversation between two women at my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome specialist’s office.
One of the women I overheard spoke about a documentary called Under Our Skin — it’s a documentary that I think everyone should watch. I would describe the Lyme Disease situation in the United States and Canada as a crisis: there is an incredible lack of awareness for Lyme in the medical community; it’s taking an average of 5-years for patients to receive a diagnosis; then patients are being told that they cannot receive treatment. (As a Canadian citizen, I had to leave Canada and seek treatment in the United States — a very costly process).
The Center for Disease Control in the Unites States estimates that 300,000 Americans contract Lyme Disease each year, but most don’t even know it. The documentary, Under Our Skin, tells the story of Lyme Disease in America: how patients are not receiving correct diagnoses, let alone treatment. And, there is a contentious war against how to treat Lyme patients who have been infected for a long period of time before diagnosis.
There are two sides to the treatment battle: medical clinicians that believe it only takes 30-days of antibiotic therapy to kill the Lyme bacterial infection, and the other side, medical clinicians that believe that patients with long standing illness and persistent symptoms require long-term antibiotic treatment.
As it stands right now, the treatment protocol in Canada mandates 30-days of antibiotic treatment, and that’s it. But, there is a larger issue: most people with Lyme Disease in Canada are not even being diagnosed because the testing protocol is unreliable; in fact, most Lyme patients in Canada receive a false-negative blood test.
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Since it is so difficult to get a Lyme diagnosis and even more difficult to get treatment if you are infected, the best thing to do would be to prevent a Lyme infection in the first place. This of course, is difficult, too, because only 30% of patients experience any type of rash after being bitten by a tick, and only 9% actually develop the classic ‘bull’s eye rash’ (a tell tail sign that Lyme infection from a tick bite has occurred). Most Lyme patients never recall being bitten by a tick — I certainly don’t.
On top of that, very young ticks are incredibly small! A tick the size of a poppy seed could infect you with Lyme and other co-infections, and you would never know it: until you started to experience odd flu like symptoms that progress to muscle and joint pain, fatigue, neurological issues, and a long list of other symptoms. (For a complete list of symptoms, click here.)
Lyme Disease Prevention Tips
1. Right off the bat, the best strategy is to be aware of ticks and Lyme Disease. Know what the general signs and symptoms of Lyme Disease are so that you can recognize the symptoms if they occur.
2. Avoid known tick infested areas — especially in the Spring and early Summer months, when ticks are most active.
3. Be aware that ticks are not only within wooded areas. The Lyme vector tick population is being dispersed widely by the migratory songbird population. I have met Lyme patients who never ventured outside of the city before.
4. Ticks like forested areas that are moist and shaded. They also like overgrown grassy areas as well.
5. If you sit down in the woods, don’t sit on a fallen log or on the leafy, grassy ground. Ticks like dark, moist areas. Sit on a rock, instead.
6. When venturing into a wooded or grassy area:
- Wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt, and tuck your socks over your pants to prevent a tick from latching on your skin.
- If you wear lighter coloured clothing, it will make spotting a tick easier.
- Walk in the middle of a forest path, rather in amongst the woods and grass.
- Use insect repellent on your skin and clothes.
- Check your clothes for ticks, often. If a tick is crawling on you, it’s best to dispose of it before it attaches to your skin.
- At the end of a day spent outdoors, check your body for ticks. Don’t forget to check in your hair, behind your ears, and on your back. (Get help to do this if you need to.)
There are three main ways to remove a tick that has attached itself to your skin (remember — ticks feed on blood, just like mosquitos. Ticks have a barbed mouth, so if you try to pull a tick off, it’s difficult. It’s literally latched on to you).
1. Tweezers — if you’re going to use tweezers to remove a tick from the skin, make sure that you pinch the tweezers as close to the mouth of the tick as possible. Don’t squeeze the tick’s belly or rip its head off: both of these strategies will cause the tick to vomit into your blood stream. And, that is ultimately what you’re trying to prevent. (Remember — Lyme Disease is transmitted to your blood stream if the bacteria, stored in a tick’s abdomen, is regurgitated into your blood stream.)
2. Tick Removal Tool — there are tick removal tools that are very useful. Here is an example of one.
3. Thin Thread — if you tie a loop with thin sewing thread, then loop it around the mouth of a tick, once you tighten the thread, thus tying a knot around the mouth of the tick, the tick will pull back off of your skin. Make sure not to strangle the tick; you don’t want the tick to vomit.
Caution — do not smother a tick with vaseline or any type of cream; do not attempt to drive a tick off your body with a hot needle or blown-out match; never squeeze or behead a tick that is attached to your skin. All of these strategies will make a tick vomit. Lyme bacteria and co-infections are stored in the abdomen of a tick. Lyme is transmitted to a human or animal if the bacteria is allowed to move from the tick’s abdomen to your blood stream.
What to do Once a Tick is Removed
Always keep a tick that you remove in a zip lock bag, in your freezer. Take the tick with you to see your family physician. Be aware of any rash that occurs after being bitten. But remember that few people experience rashes at all.
How I Approach the Outdoors, Now
I love the outdoors. My honey and I used to camp and canoe all the time. We just love the backcountry.
When I contracted Lyme Disease in 2006, it took 6 years for me to be able to return to camping and hiking. I was really too sick to do most things — expect just sit around and visit with friends and family (which I’m all grateful for).
When I finally felt strong enough to go hiking and camping again, it was Thanksgiving weekend of 2012. It was unusually hot here — total bikini weather. Thanksgiving here in Ontario is usually very chilly. My love and I looked at each other and I said, ‘let’s go camping’. Both of us were so happy. It had been 6-years since I was able to hike. I couldn’t wait to get up North to Algonquin Park.
Of course, at the back of mind, I was worried about ticks. After all, I have no idea where I was bitten, originally. It could have been here in Ontario or in Maryland, where my family is from. All I could do was take precautions.
- I wore huge socks over my leggings
- I wore long sleeves
- If I sat down, it was on a large, flat rock — I didn’t sit on earthy, grassy ground, or on fallen logs
- At the end of the day, I did a tick check. I scanned my body for ticks.
As a Lyme patient, I think the best way to cope with the outdoors is to just be aware. I know what ticks look like, and I know how to remove them, and I absolutely know what the signs and symptoms are. I don’t want to miss being in the woods because I love it. There’s nothing like the smell of Algonquin Park on a hot day — it has the most wonderful, fragrant cedar and pine smell. And, I missed that.
Despite Lyme Disease I still love being outside. But, now, I know how to protect myself.