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Figure You've Got The Flu? Not So Fast: It Might Be Lyme Disease

Flu season is winding down, but here in Canada, tick season is just getting started. Late spring and early summer see the highest number of tick bites, with the highest numbers of Lyme disease reported in summer and fall. Canada is just beginning to get a grasp on the severity and breadth of the threat from Lyme disease, and medical professionals are trying to learn how best to diagnose it in its early stages. Because early Lyme disease presents much like the flu, walk in clinics reporting late-season flu cases may be missing this much more serious condition. If you feel like you've gotten a case of the flu that just isn't going away, you may want to head back to your doctor.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease, transmitted by the black-legged deer tick, is a bacterial infection that, without treatment, can be fatal. Ticks can't fly or move quickly; they simply wait on blades of grass or leaves of trees until a host brushes by and they can attach themselves. You may feel the tick's bite...or you may not, as ticks are so small (about the size of a sesame seed). Generally, a tick has to remain attached to your body for many hours--24 or more--to transmit the disease, but not necessarily. Once infected, you must receive treatment with antibiotics in early stages of Lyme disease; if you do not, the infection can spread to your joints, nervous system, and heart.

How prevalent is Lyme disease in Canada?

Canadian authorities are just beginning to understand the increasing prevalence of Lyme disease. The Public Health Agency began tracking it in 2009, and at that point reported 500 cases nationwide. However, it projects that by the 2020s over 10,000 Canadians will be afflicted. Important to note is the huge underreporting that occurs with this condition: in the United States, officials believe Lyme disease afflicts 300,000 people--ten times more than is reported to health agencies. Canadian health experts whittle that projection down to three times more than reported. Underreporting happens for several reasons.

  1. Many patients do not know they've been bitten.

  2. Patients do not report possible exposure to ticks by telling doctors they've been in forested areas, gardening, etc.

  3. Tests for Lyme disease conducted within 30 days of exposure often return false negative results.

  4. Early-stage symptoms often resolve, leaving patient and physician convinced the illness really was the flu.

  5. Symptoms are highly variable in early-stage Lyme disease.

Early Lyme disease feels like flu

Classic symptoms of Lyme disease begin anywhere from 3-30 days after infection and look a lot like the flu:

  • chills

  • body aches

  • fever

  • headache

  • fatigue

  • swollen lymph nodes

You may develop a rash that looks like a bullseye and spreads outward from the site of the bite. However, 20-30% of victims will not get the rash.

It is at this point that you may head to a walk in clinic for treatment of what you think are flu symptoms. However, if you have been in a forested area or spent time in outdoors activities (such as gardening, golfing, fishing, or rafting) you should report this to the physician.

Early diagnosis is key to successful treatment

Although symptom presentation and clinical progress of Lyme disease are both complex, a course of antibiotics for 2-4 weeks is often sufficient treatment. However, 10-20% of those who undergo treatment will experience further medical problems from the infection. These complications include arthritis, severe joint pain, difficulty sleeping, cognitive problems, and fatigue.

If you think there is any possibility you may have been bitten by a tick, make sure to mention this to the doctor who sees you at a walk in clinic. Even if you are pretty sure you just have a late-season case of the flu, follow up; ask for a Lyme disease test in about a month, just to make sure. You have nothing to lose--and your life to gain.