Being bitten by a tick doesn’t sound like a lot of fun no matter how you look at it, but when you factor in the risk of Lyme disease it gets much, much worse. There were nearly a thousand confirmed cases of Lyme disease across Canada last year, and the numbers have been steadily rising for the last decade.

Most Canadians have likely heard of Lyme disease, but few really understand it. “Lyme disease is an infection caused by a tick-borne bacteria by the name of B. Burgdorferi or one of its strains,” explains Dr. Samuel Shor, President of the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society. “It is transmitted by a bite, usually from a deer tick. It can manifest itself as an acute viral-like illness within a week to three weeks of the bite.”

The acute illness presents with symptoms like fever, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, and fatigue, as well as a risk of more severe complications like meningitis, encephalitis, and heart arrhythmia. It usually lasts for a few days to a few weeks and can be quite dangerous. The illness is treatable if caught early, but unfortunately many people who are affected don’t realize they’ve been bitten until they start to feel sick, and the symptoms can vary greatly, making diagnosis difficult even after the illness begins.

Most troublingly, though, the problems don’t end when the acute illness passes. “The problem is that long-term phenomena can occur if it’s not adequately treated,” says Dr. Shor. “The long-term phenomena can be quite varied. Lyme disease has been called the great imitator and can cause symptoms similar to Bell’s palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and others.”

There is debate in the medical community regarding what it is about Lyme disease that causes these long-lasting symptoms, but there is absolutely a consensus about the best way to avoid them. Don’t get bitten in the first place. “This is certainly the kind of disease where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” says Dr. Shor. “The key is to recognize the habitat in which the ticks live. That means particularly tall grassy areas and heavily leafed areas. As long as you are cognizant of your surroundings, are preemptive in how you prepare yourself, and do thorough tick checks, especially on children, you can substantially lower your risk.”