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Lyme Disease

 

Definition

Lyme disease is classified as a vector-borne, zoonotic illness – it is spread by ticks (the vector, or agent of transmission). The organism which causes Lyme disease is a spiral-shaped bacterium called Borrelia burgdorfei and it has been found in two species of ticks collected from many areas of B.C. including Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland, the Sunshine Coast, the Fraser Valley and the Kootenays.

The ticks that spread Lyme disease in B.C., Ixodes angustus and I. pacificus are tiny bugs, about the size of a sesame seed, and they feed on blood. Different ticks prefer different types of animals. Sometimes a tick will bite a person instead of biting an animal.

While most tick bites do not result in disease, some do.

In BC less than 1 percent of ticks tested carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, and there is only a very small chance of them giving it to you. However, the disease can be serious, so it is worth taking steps to avoid being bitten.

Ticks live in tall grass and wooded areas and attach to people or animals as they pass by. Ticks burrow part way into the skin, bite, draw blood, then drop off. They are easiest to spot when they are actually sucking blood. The feeding tick's mouth will be under the skin, but the back parts will be sticking out. They will be full of blood and blue-grey in colour (this is called an "engorged" tick).
 

Symptoms

If you have the following symptoms within days or weeks after being bitten by a tick, consult your family doctor or other healthcare professional immediately. Tell your doctor when and where you were bitten by a tick.

  • a skin rash that looks like a "bull's eye" and may be quite large. It often spreads out from where the tick bite was.

Also, other general symptoms include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • muscle and joint pains
  • fatigue or weakness of the muscles of the face
 

Causes

Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. It is passed to people by the bite of an infected tick. Other diseases passed on by tick bites include:

  • relapsing fever
  • tularemia
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF)
  • Q fever
  • ehrlichiosis

All of these diseases are rare in British Columbia.

 

 

 

Treatment and Drugs

Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a course of antibiotics, especially if caught early. Untreated, Lyme disease can affect the joints, the heart and the nervous system and is much more difficult to treat.  

Prevention

 

What if I find a tick?

The most important thing is to make sure that you remove all the tick, including the mouth parts that are buried in your skin. Also, do not squeeze the body of the tick when you are removing it. This can force its stomach contents into the wound and increase the chance of infection. If you have found a tick, you have three choices:

  1. remove the tick yourself;
  2. get someone else to remove the tick for you. (This is when you can't reach it or see it clearly, for example if it's on your scalp, or some other hard-to-reach place); or
  3. get your family doctor to remove it.

How NOT to remove a tick!

Some people think you can remove a tick by covering it with grease, gasoline or some other substance. This does not work! It only increases the chance of you getting an infection. Holding something hot (for example, a match or cigarette) against the tick also does NOT work! Again, this will only increase the chance of an infection or accidentally burning yourself.

If you decide to remove the tick yourself, follow the instructions below.

When should you remove the tick?

You should only remove the tick yourself, or get a friend or family member to remove it, if the tick is not buried very deep into your skin. If the tick has been on your skin for less than two hours, it has probably not had a chance to burrow into your skin. If the tick is just on the surface of your skin, or only biting on to the outside skin layer, you can remove it following the instructions below.

When should you get a doctor to remove the tick?

You should go to your doctor to get the tick removed if it has buried itself deep into your skin. This usually happens if the tick has been on you for several hours, or even a day or two. When a tick has burrowed deep into your skin, it is very hard to remove the tick without leaving some mouth parts behind, which can cause infection.

How to remove a tick

Remove the tick right away (if possible, wear disposable gloves when handling an engorged tick):

  • Use tweezers or forceps to gently get hold of the tick as close to the skin as possible. Don't touch the tick with your hands.
  • Without squeezing the tick, steadily lift it straight off the skin. Avoid jerking it out. Try to make sure that all of the tick is removed.
  • Once the tick has been removed, clean the bite area with soap and water, then disinfect the wound with antiseptic cream.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water.

If your doctor wants to have the tick tested:

  • Save the tick in a container with a tight fitting top.
  • Dampen a small cotton ball and put it into the tick container to keep the tick alive. (A live tick is necessary for culturing the spirochete which causes Lyme disease.)
  • Label the container with date shipped, name and address of person bitten or what type of animal the tick was from, what part of the body was bitten, and what part of the province the tick probably came from.
  • Also include the name and address of your family physician.
  • For laboratory testing, this container should be mailed as soon as possible (BC residents only):  

BCCDC Laboratory Services
Parasitology Section     
655 West 12th Ave.
Vancouver V5Z 4R4 BC Canada

Ask your doctor for further advice.      

To protect yourself against tick and insect bites: 

  • Walk on cleared trails wherever possible when walking in tall grass or woods.
  • Wear light coloured clothing, tuck your top into your pants and tuck your pants into your boots or socks.
  • Put insect repellent containing DEET on all uncovered skin. Reapply as frequently as directed on the container.
  • Check clothing and scalp (covered or not) when leaving an area where ticks may live.
  • Check in folds of skin. Have someone help you check hard-to-see areas. When a tick is located, remove it immediately. Check the whole body! Don't stop when you find one tick. There may be more. Make sure the lighting is good so that you will not miss seeing the ticks.
  • Regularly check household pets for ticks.  
Last Updated: June 3, 2014