What You Need to Know: Lyme Disease

Health Writer
iStock

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. It is carried by deer ticks and is passed from ticks to humans after a tick bites and stays attached to the skin for 24 hours. Although ticks carrying Lyme disease have been found all around the United States, they are most common in the Northeastern and North Central areas of the U.S. according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Symptoms

Symptoms of Lyme disease can range from mild to severe. They usually appear somewhere between three and 30 days after being bit by a tick. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, one of the early signs is a rash that looks like a bulls-eye or a target. The rash might also appear as red or bluish lesions. However, some people do not get a rash at all. You might also develop flu-like symptoms, including:

  • Fever, chills
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Headache
  • Swollen lymph nodes

About 10 to 20 percent of people with Lyme disease develop chronic symptoms, either because the disease was not diagnosed and treated in the early stages or because they have developed resistance to treatment, according to research from Northeastern University. Untreated or antibiotic-resistant Lyme disease can cause prolonged symptoms, including rashes, facial paralysis, weakness, numbness or pain in the arms and legs, chronic arthritis, and even cognitive problems affecting memory and concentration, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Lyme disease is diagnosed based on a physical examination, which includes a history of your symptoms and a blood test. The CDC recommends a two-step laboratory test. The first test is an enzyme immunoassay (EIA) test. If this is positive, then an immunoblot, also known as a Western blot test, should be done. You are considered positive for Lyme disease only if both tests are positive.

The CDC cautions that these tests might not be accurate immediately. The EIA test looks for antibodies in your blood and it can sometimes take your body four to six weeks for your body to manufacture antibodies to fight Lyme disease. Because of this, if the physical exam, history of symptoms, and recollection of being bit by a tick all point to possible Lyme disease, your doctor might suggest taking antibiotics immediately, as treatment is more successful when started early.

As of now, there isn’t any evidence of Lyme disease being transmitted person-to-person, either through sexual contact, close contact, blood transfusions, breastfeeding, or during pregnancy, according to the CDC.

Prevention

It’s important to be vigilant about protecting yourself against ticks. While they are most often found in certain areas of the country, they can be found anywhere. Even if you live in the city, local parks can have ticks that carry Lyme disease. The most common time of the year to get Lyme disease is between May and July; however, ticks can be active anytime the temperature is above 40 degrees. Ticks are most commonly found in:

  • Wooded areas
  • Places where grass is high or overgrown
  • Areas with overgrown bushes
  • Leaf piles

When going outdoors in these areas, you should:

  • Wear protective, light colored clothing. Light colored clothing makes it easier to see and remove ticks.
  • Wear long pants, long sleeves and tuck socks into your shoes or boots.
  • Use a repellant containing DEET or permethrin.

Once you come in from outdoors, you should immediately check for ticks. According to the CDC, you should pay particular attention to:

  • Under the arms
  • In and around the ears
  • Inside the belly button and around the waist
  • Behind the knees and between your legs
  • In and around your hair

Take a shower as soon as possible to wash off any unattached ticks. If a tick is attached to your skin, use tweezers to grasp close to your skin and slowly pull outward. According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “do not twist or move the tick because this could cause parts of the tick to stay stuck in the skin.” Ticks need to be attached to your skin for 24 hours to transmit Lyme disease.

Don’t forget your pets. Use tick repellents to help keep ticks away from them. Your vet can help you decide which methods are best. Even with tick repellent, you should check your pets daily and remove any ticks as soon as possible.

Not all ticks carry Lyme disease. However, if you have any of the symptoms of Lyme disease within 30 days of being in a wooded area, contact your doctor. Because deer ticks are small, it is possible to be bitten by a tick and not know.

For more information on Lyme disease:

Lyme Disease Ticks Spreading Across U.S.

What's New in Lyme Disease Research

Lyme Disease and ADHD - Complications in Diagnosis

Lyme Disease: My Experience - Other Substances

What's new in Lyme Disease Research