Don’t let the hype around Lyme disease lead to unnecessary treatment, warns U of A researcher

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An infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta Hospital says the risk of contracting Lyme disease from a tick bite is overblown.

“I think fear and misinformation can actually drive people into doing things that could be potentially dangerous,” said Lynora Saxinger.

“If they do not have Lyme disease, but they have symptoms and they are seeking treatment with antibiotics for those symptoms, they’re both at risk of side effects from antibiotics,” she said. “And they’re also at risk of whatever they actually really have becoming more of a problem while they’re distracted by this question of Lyme treatment.”

Lynora Saxinger

Lynora Saxinger says myths about Lyme disease are sparking unnecessary public concern. (Martin Weaver/CBC)

Lyme disease is an infection spread through the bite of infected ticks that can cause symptoms such as: headache, fever, skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, fatigue and weakness. It can also cause damage to the heart, nerves and other organs.

In recent years, it has become more prevalent in Canada. In 2016 the country’s chief public health officer said he was alarmed by an increased number of diagnosed cases, but Saxinger points to data from Alberta indicating that even if you are bitten by a tick in this province, there is a low likelihood that you will contract the disease.

Of the 2,781 ticks submitted to the Alberta tick surveillance program for testing in 2016, 181 were of the black-legged variety that carry the disease — and only 34 were positive.

‘There is a risk to doing it wrong’

Amid concerns that the standard tests for Lyme disease in Canada are outdated and don’t test for various strains, Saxinger warns against paying out-of-pocket for a U.S. alternative.

“There’s a very high false-positive rate. So people could be mistakenly told that they do have Lyme disease and then they would be on inappropriate treatment for whatever their symptoms are actually due to,” she said.

Saxinger said the University of Alberta Hospital does not consider the results of the U.S. test as valid when assessing whether to treat someone for Lyme disease.

“There is a risk to doing it wrong. I think a misdiagnosis is as bad, if not not worse, than actually no diagnosis sometimes,” she said.

If you suspect you have Lyme disease, but Canadian testing isn’t identifying it, Saxinger said repeat the process two-to-four weeks later.

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Don’t let the hype around Lyme disease lead to unnecessary treatment, warns U of A researcher

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