What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is a treatable, yet dangerous, infection that usually causes flu-like symptoms. It is caused by the bacteria classified as Borrelia burgdorferi. The overwhelming majority of cases are caused by the extended bite of the blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick, or the bear tick.
Lyme disease spreads as ticks carrying Borrelia burgdorferi travel. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that most cases of Lyme disease occur in the Northeast, where blacklegged ticks are most prevalent. However, a higher instance of cases have been reported in Florida and far north as Canada, where the this tick has spread. Between 1995 and 2015, the total number of Lyme disease cases has doubled.
The CDC also estimates that there are around 11 times more cases of Lyme disease than the 30,000 actually reported to the organization. These infections overwhelmingly occur in people under the age of 15 and in people between the ages of 40 to 60. The reason these populations are more likely to catch Lyme disease is singular: They are the age groups most likely to be outside in areas where the blacklegged tick resides.
Although the blacklegged tick is responsible for the vast majority of reported Lyme disease cases, not all of them can transmit Lyme disease. Also, many types of tick that look like the blacklegged tick on the surface do not transmit the disease. This includes the brown dog tick, the Rocky Mountain wood tick, and the American dog tick. To be diagnosed with Lyme disease, you should consult a doctor who is familiar with the symptoms of the condition.
Preventing Lyme Disease & Tick Bites
Blacklegged ticks are famous for attaching themselves to hosts for days at a time. A tick feeds from hosts by sucking blood from them while expanding its own abdomen. Its abdomen can swell to many times its original size. It is a myth that the tick never lets go – it will release itself after it has become fully engorged. However, this process takes days, and it should be removed as soon as it is found.
The longer a tick can feed from a host, the more difficult it can be to remove. It can be pulled out up to a few hours after attachment. After this time, however, other methods may be required. Attempting to pull out a tick after it has sufficiently engorged itself to its host will only separate its head from its body, with the head still firmly attached.
In most cases, a tick must be attached to your body for 24 hours before it can transmit Lyme disease. However, the best way to prevent contracting it is to avoid coming into contact with ticks. Here are some of the things that professional organizations recommend for preventing Lyme disease.
- If you know that you are going into a heavily wooded area or through high grass, cover your skin with clothing. Use high socks, long sleeves, and tight layers to ensure that no ticks can get in between your layers and reach your skin.
- If your pets go into these areas, be sure to always check them for ticks before and after you take them. Even though ticks do not feed on humans as much in the South because of the heat, they can come into your vicinity through your pets.
- Although bull ticks with the Lyme disease bacteria have been found in 43 states, pay special attention in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In 2015, 95% of all Lyme disease cases were reported in one of these 14 states.
- After any risky activity outside, check yourself and your clothes closely for ticks. Ticks are very small, so you must have a good eye. Take a shower and wash your clothes immediately, even if you do not see any ticks anywhere.
- Make sure that you dry your clothes using a hot cycle.
- Make sure that your put a tick repellent on your skin. Cover your clothes in DEET, eucalyptus or lemon oil to further deter ticks from attaching themselves to you.
- Permethrin is a chemical that will protect you from ticks if you put it on your camping gear and tools.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of Lyme disease usually do not occur immediately after the bite. They usually take around three days to show themselves, although it may be 30 days before they are visible. The severity of the symptoms also depends on the following conditions:
- Where you were when the tick bite occurred
- How long the tick was attached to your body
- The tick species
Once symptoms begin, they will gradually get worse if the disease is left untreated. The first symptoms that most people will experience include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Muscle and joint pain
- Rashes, including the infamous “bull’s eye” rash. Be aware that the bull’s eye is not limited to the part of the body which the tick directly accessed. This special rash will appear in around 30% of Lyme disease cases. Usually warm to the touch, it does not itch but can expand if left untreated.
As the disease progresses, you may experience some or all of the symptoms below:
- Stiffness in the neck
- Severe headaches
- Expansion of the bull’s eye rash
- Irregular heartbeats or full heart palpitations
- Drooping on one or both sides of the face and a loss of muscle tone
- Spinal cord and brain inflammation
- Tingling, numbing or shooting pains in the extremities of the body
- Arthritis, usually located in the knee area
Keep in mind that you will probably not be able to feel a tick bite. This is why checking visually is so important after every risky activity.
There are two major medical societies with jurisdiction over the public methods used to treat Lyme disease. The philosophies of these two organizations differ slightly in terms of treatment. The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) prefers to treat Lyme disease with a short antibiotic course. The International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS) usually recommends longer and more aggressive antibiotic programs.
Both societies agree that the earlier that Lyme disease is treated, the better. Both organizations admit, however, that there is currently no way to test for an active infection without the presence of symptoms. Because of this, most doctors will usually put a patient on the more extensive and aggressive antibiotic methods of the ILADS.
Penicillin antibiotics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are used in tandem to treat symptoms and reduce side effects. Amoxicillin and Midol or Advil are common drugs used to treat Lyme disease, although there are other combinations which a rheumatologist or a neurologist may prescribe depending on the individual circumstances.
Testing for Lyme Disease
A blood test is not always the best way to assess Lyme disease – this is a myth that may actually cost you unnecessary money at the doctor’s office. There are two better ways to test for Lyme disease.
The first test doctors will usually conduct for Lyme disease is known as the ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay) test. This most common test for Lyme disease can nevertheless create a false positive in many instances. It can also miss a diagnosis during the early stages of the disease.
If the ELISA test comes up positive, the Western blot test is usually the next step. The Western blot is used to reveal the presence of the antibodies the body creates in response to the Lyme disease bacteria.
Tips on Tick Removal
Contrary to the old wives’ tale, you should not attempt to burn a tick off if it does not want to detach from its host willingly. In fact, burning a tick may hurt the host more than the tick. Take a look at some of the following less risky and more effective methods for removing ticks.
- If you do not feel comfortable trying to pull or tweeze the tick out yourself, get into the doctor’s office as soon as possible and let the professionals handle it.
- If you catch a tick before it can attach itself in earnest to the host, you may be able to pull it out with a gloved hand. Make sure that you cover your hand so that the tick does not have a chance to attach itself to you. After removing the tick, flush it down the toilet or drown it in soapy water. You may also keep the tick in a plastic bag if you want to keep it for further testing at a doctor’s office.
- If a tick is able to bury itself into the skin of its host, tweezers may be necessary to remove it. Pull straight up. Pulling to the side may cause the tick’s head to separate from its body. Assuming you are able to remove the entire tick, clean the bitten area with rubbing alcohol. Dispose of the tick using the methods described above.
- Never try to crush a tick with your hands. You may attach the tick to yourself, even if it is dead.
Lyme Disease and Ticks in Dogs
If you live in a high-risk area, it is likely that your dog has been bitten by a Lyme disease-carrying tick at some point. Always place a tick prevention product on your pet before taking it on walks or letting it outside for extended periods. Only 10% of dogs who have active Lyme disease will ever become physically ill.
The incidence of ticks on dogs is indicative of the number of ticks in the area. Ticks have a much easier time attaching themselves to dogs. If your dog is always coming back with a tick or two in its fur, you can assume that you are at risk of a tick bite.
Grooming your pet consistently is key. If you cannot remove a tick you find, go to the veterinarian as soon as possible.
Neither humans nor animals will be able to tell that they have been bitten by a tick. It is therefore up to you to protect yourself, your family, and your pets from further infection. Regular precautions are a great way of reducing pest-borne illnesses, including Lyme Disease.