By Richard Bell
The weather’s getting warm enough to start worrying about one of the downsides of the great outdoors, Lyme disease, from the bite of a blacklegged tick infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium that causes the disease.
Although a quick course of antibiotics will usually kill off the bacteria, there are still no simple or reliable methods for diagnosing the disease, leaving patients at the mercy of their doctors’ evaluation of the bewildering variety of symptoms which Lyme Disease sufferers present. And if a victim misses this early treatment window, even chronic courses of antibiotics may not be enough to eliminate the disease.
The first case of Lyme Disease in the province was reported in 2003, and the numbers have been going up ever since, thanks in part to birds carrying the ticks across the province. The number of reported cases jumped from 326 in 2016 to 586 in 2017, the latest numbers available. Provincial health officials warn that Nova Scotians may encounter blacklegged ticks anywhere in the province, and that HRM is one of the province’s hot spots.
In some people, the first indication of a bite is a “bulls-eye” rash, an inflamed area that looks like a crudely drawn bulls-eye target. But many people never experience this rash, and the blood tests for the disease are unreliable. In Nova Scotia, the provincial Department of Health and Wellness guidelines tell physicians to rely on a clinical diagnosis, rather than the less reliable blood tests. The standard treatment for an early diagnosis is usually a few weeks of antibiotics.
Chronic Lyme—A Bitter Political Fight
Even patients who are diagnosed quickly and treated with antibiotics can develop fatigue, pain, or joint and muscle aches that can sometimes last for months. Some doctors prescribe long-term treatment with high doses of antibiotics for people with such post-Lyme symptoms, and there is a growing movement of sufferers who swear by this approach.
But most doctors and public health officials oppose such long-term use of antibiotics. For example, in a “Statement for Managing Lyme Disease in Nova Scotia,” the Infectious Diseases Expert Group (IDEG) of the Department of Health and Wellness concludes, “Studies have demonstrated that longer-term antibiotic treatment is no more effective than the standard recommended course of treatment and may be associated with complications. Longer-term antibiotics are not recommended.”
The Nova Scotia Health Department has released the following list of things you can do to reduce contact with ticks, avoid tick bites, risk of infection and Lyme disease:
- wear light coloured, long sleeved shirts and pants to increase visibility
- wear light coloured socks and enclosed shoes while working or playing outside or hiking
- pull socks up over pant legs and tucking in shirts
- spray clothing and exposed skin with an insect repellent containing DEET or icaridin and always make sure to follow directions on the label
- check clothing and body carefully for ticks after working or playing outside, especially in the bushes or long grass. Pay special attention to armpits, the back of the knees and the groin or pelvic region
- put clean outdoor clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill any remaining ticks
- remove any ticks attached to the skin promptly and safely
- clean the bite area with soap and water or alcohol based sanitizer
- keep grass cut and remove leaf litter to minimize a suitable habitat for ticks on properties
For more information, including how to remove and dispose of ticks safely, visit www.novascotia.ca/ticksafety.