While there is no vaccine yet for Lyme disease, there is treatment for early Lyme disease — and ways to help prevent contracting it.
Dr. Naila Kassam, a Toronto-based primary care physician and Think Research’s Senior Medical Advisor, sees patients in her family practice both virtually and in-person who were bitten by ticks and are concerned about Lyme disease.
Here, Kassam shares her expert advice on what to do if you’re bitten by a tick, the symptoms of Lyme disease and how to protect yourself against pesky ticks.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is caused by a bite from deer ticks — also known as blacklegged ticks. When a deer tick is infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, a type of bacteria, it can pass that bacteria into a human’s bloodstream through a bite. This infection can cause Lyme disease which presents through a host of symptoms, including a large circular rash, headaches, fever, fatigue, decreased appetite, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. While the classic Lyme disease rash has a bullseye-like appearance, there can be other presentations as well.
When Lyme disease is untreated, it can cause more severe symptoms like joint pain, heart palpitations or an irregular heart beat, nerve pain and severe fatigue.
It’s important to note not all ticks are dangerous to humans, and not all deer ticks are infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, either. Certain areas are known to have higher rates of infected ticks, so checking local data when heading into nature is important. What’s more, with early intervention and treatment, Lyme disease can often be managed.
What to do if you’re bitten by a tick
Consulting with a doctor — even virtually — is often a great first step if you’re anxious after a tick bite and don’t know what to do. When Kassam sees patients, she first asks them if the tick is or was attached to them for a period of time. If the answer is no, and the patient shows no symptoms of Lyme disease, the risk of the condition is very low. To be safe, patients are advised to monitor any symptoms for 30 days.
If the tick is attached, “you safely remove the tick,” Kassam says, pointing to guidance on how to do so per public health recommendations. Then, the doctor will evaluate the patient based on what type of tick has bit them, their symptoms, and how long the tick was attached to the skin.
Health officials say if a tick was attached for less than 24 hours, the risk of Lyme disease is low. But if a tick was attached to the skin for 72 hours or longer, it’s best to be safe and take further steps.
In cases where someone is at risk of Lyme disease, medication can help prevent it. Doctors will evaluate whether or not a patient meets the criteria for this type of intervention.
“We can actually do post-exposure prophylaxis, which is really exciting,” Kassam says. “It’s a dose of an antibiotic.”
It’s also smart to book an appointment if you were exposed to ticks and think you’re at risk of Lyme disease. For patients with suspected cases of Lyme disease, blood work may be part of the process, but your healthcare provider will determine the best course of action.
Ways to protect yourself against tick bites
It’s a good idea to take measures to protect yourself against tick bites if you’re enjoying the outdoors. You should be aware of the prevalence of tick-borne disease in the area you are exploring, and check local public health information.
You can reduce the likelihood of tick bites by wearing tick repellents, tucking your pants into your socks, wearing protective footwear and long sleeves, and making sure you remove ticks as soon as possible. And, perhaps most crucially, “check your body after you’re outside,” Kassam says, stressing the importance of thorough tick checks.
Kassam says because ticks can be very tiny, it’s important people are aware of what they look like.
“I remember being in the clinic and patients bringing a tick in and being surprised at how tiny they were,” she says. “They can be really small, so that’s why it’s important for people to [tick check] themselves.”
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