Lyme disease is a potentially serious infection caused by a bacterium that is spread when a person is bitten by an infected blacklegged tick, commonly known as a deer tick. Deer ticks are found in woody and bushy areas throughout Ontario, but infected ticks appear to occur most commonly in districts north of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and the Saint Lawrence. Deer ticks are most active during Spring and early Summer, but you can even find a deer tick on you or your pet during warm Winter days. Ontario Public Health reports that there were 1,159 cases of lyme disease documented in 2019, including 36 hospitalizations.
The following are early signs that you may have contracted lyme disease. Symptoms typically appear between 3 to 30 days after being infected:
- A spreading and painless red rash that looks like a bull’s eye
- Flu-like symptoms, including headache, fever and chills, tiredness, and muscle and joint pain
- Neck stiffness and/or swollen lymph nodes
Later symptoms which, if untreated, may appear months or even years after being infected, include:
- Neurological problems, such as:
- meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain),
- numbness or weakness in legs or arms
- impaired muscle movement
- Bell’s palsy (temporary paralysis in one side of the face)
- Arthritis, severe joint pain and swelling, most commonly in the knee
- Rash on other parts of the body
These later symptoms may also occur but are less common:
- Hepatitis (inflammation of the liver)
- Heart problems, including shortness of breath, palpitations, and chest discomfort during exertion
- Serious fatigue and sleep disturbances
- Eye inflammation
- Mental confusion and ‘brain fog’
Most ticks don’t carry lyme disease. Further, an infected tick typically needs to have been attached for 36 to 48 hours before a person becomes infected. If infected, the disease is most treatable the earlier it is detected, by a round of antibiotics. If untreated, symptoms such as debilitating pain can result in disability and may be life-changing.
Unfortunately, it’s believed that many cases of lyme disease go undiagnosed partly because symptoms may be very mild at onset and often resemble the flu. Further complicating the situation is the fact that Canada does not yet have an effective system for diagnosing and treating the disease.
A 37-year-old New Brunswick mother recently shared her long struggle with serious Lyme disease symptoms before finally receiving a definitive diagnosis (CBC News, Feb 12, 2020). The woman, Amanda Kenny, first noticed symptoms when she was a healthy 24-year-old, after a 2007 camping trip. Her right knee had become swollen and she experienced terrible flu symptoms, so she consulted her doctor. Tests did not indicate Lyme disease, and she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and prescribed steroids. Ms. Kenny didn’t find out until later that, in Canada, the Lyme disease test gives a negative result for about half of patients tested for the first time. The test checks for antibodies in the blood which may not develop until as much as 8 weeks after being exposed to the disease. Outside of Canada, Lyme disease tests have a lower threshold for testing positive so there are fewer negative results.
In the 13 years before she was properly diagnosed, Ms. Kenny suffered serious symptoms including migraines, and burning and numbness in her face. She visited the hospital emergency room 10 times and each time, doctors misdiagnosed her symptoms and sent her home. She was taking many medications which did little to alleviate her symptoms. Ms. Kenny eventually became bed-ridden and was forced to give up her business due to her chronic pain. At the time of the CBC report, Ms. Kenny expressed the opinion that she wouldn’t be able to get proper treatment in New Brunswick and was planning to seek treatment in Mexico, at a cost of about $52,000 U.S. for a 4-week treatment.
Another reported case involves a 58-year-old Ontario man, Kevin Matthews, who was bitten by a deer tick while hunting near Kingston, Ontario (CTV News, Nov 20, 2020). He extracted the tick from his stomach but wasn’t worried and didn’t seek treatment at the time – although the bite was initially a bit infected, there was no bullseye rash. About 3 months later, Mr. Matthews developed excruciating pain in his joints, particularly those in his hands and elbows. He told his doctor that he may have Lyme disease and was prescribed an antibiotic but it was too late and the drug was not effective at eliminating his chronic pain. Mr. Matthews subsequently sought help from a naturopath who forwarded his blood sample for an international test which confirmed Lyme disease.
Mr. Matthews was finally referred to a Toronto physician, Dr. Tim Cook, who began a treatment regime that included several antibiotics and supplements including probiotics. When regular antibiotics proved unsuccessful at eradicating the patient’s Lyme disease and severe chronic pain, Dr. Cook prescribed a breakthrough drug, Disulfram (DSF) which is one of only a few drugs that can eradicate Lyme disease when normal antibiotics have failed. The drug immediately got rid of Mr. Matthews pain but after several months he experienced other symptoms, including mild headaches, which will hopefully be resolved with dosage adjustment.
On May 20, 2020, an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) warned that Lyme disease is becoming more common and can easily be overlooked, and doctors and emergency room staff need to consider Lyme Disease as a potential cause of conditions and symptoms that are potentially caused by this disease. The article cited the case of a 37-year-old Manitoba resident who consulted with his doctor when he began to experience flu-like symptoms (including a sore throat, fever, and nasal congestion) and a rash. He also told the doctor he saw circular-type marks on his chest and back a couple of weeks earlier, but believed they were caused when he brushed against raspberry bushes while walking in bushy areas around his rural property. A few weeks later, the man was sent to emergency after experiencing heart palpitations and shortness of breath. An ECG indicated a complete heart block and tragically, emergency physicians were unable to prevent his death 2 days later.
These disturbing incidents are reminder that we need to check ourselves regularly for ticks or unexplained symptoms after potential exposure in natural areas. It’s also important to seek medical help if you are concerned about a symptom and let your doctor know if you may have been bitten by an infected tick. And, if you’re suffering from Lyme disease symptoms that prevent you from being able to work, you may be entitled to disability benefits from your disability insurer, at least until your symptoms are alleviated and no longer interfere with your ability to perform the essential tasks of your job.