March 11, 2020
If you live in an area heavily populated with deer or you like hiking and camping, you’ve probably been warned about Lyme disease from tick bites.
First identified in the 1970s, Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, and in some rare cases, Borrelia mayonii. It’s transmitted through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick, more commonly known as a deer tick.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), studies suggest that approximately 300,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year, with a majority of cases occurring in the Northeast and upper Midwest.
Because delaying treatment can result in worsening symptoms that can have long-lasting health implications, it is crucial that you recognize the early symptoms of the disease.
The most common symptoms are fever, headache, fatigue, and a skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, the infection can spread to your joints, heart, and nervous system.
The progression of the infection occurs in stages. Typically, anywhere from 3 days to 30 days after the bite from an infected tick, you’ll start to experience symptoms like fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes. Some patients experience swollen lymph nodes, but never develop a rash.
The erythema migrans, a rash that looks like a bull’s-eye, occurs in almost 80 percent of all patients with Lyme disease. You can find it on any area of your body. On average, it will appear about a week after the bite. And while usually not itchy or painful, it may feel warm to the touch.
Later symptoms (which may develop months after the tick bite) include severe headache and neck stiffness, more erythema migrans rashes, facial palsy, arthritis, and pain in tendons, muscles, joints and bones.
Some people may also experience heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat, episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, and shooting pain or numbness in the hands or feet.
Lyme disease can be tricky to diagnose because its symptoms mirror those of other conditions. Ticks that transmit Lyme disease can also carry other diseases. For these reasons, it may take time to rule everything else out, especially if there isn’t a bull’s-eye rash.
Diagnosis of Lyme disease is based on a combination of symptoms, physical evaluation, and medical history, including any possible exposure to infected ticks. Lab testing is also available, but the results are not always accurate.
According to the CDC, “most Lyme disease tests are designed to detect antibodies made by the body in response to infection.” Antibodies can take a few weeks to develop, so patients may test negative if the infection was recent. Another concern is that other diseases, including auto-immune diseases, can cause a false positive test result.
Most cases can be treated with a few weeks of antibiotics. If the disease spreads and you experience neurological and cardiac symptoms, you may need intravenous treatment of an antibiotic.
For early Lyme disease, doxycycline, cefuroxine axetil, and amoxicillin are prescribed. For later stages, ceftriaxone or penicillin is often used for treatment.
The best way to protect you and your loved ones from Lyme disease is to use insect repellent and wear long pants and tuck them into your socks when outdoors, especially in areas with a large deer tick population.
When you return from being outside, always do a quick tick check. If you find a tick on your skin, don’t panic. Just remove it immediately to reduce the risk of infection.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) advise using tweezers to grab it by its head or mouth. Pull it slowly, making sure the head does not remain in your skin.
Once the tick is removed, wash your hands with soap and water. Then clean the site of the bite with soap and water, followed by another cleanse with alcohol.
Not all ticks are infected, so a bite doesn’t necessarily mean you will get Lyme disease. However, being aware of the possible signs and symptoms of Lyme will help you know when medical attention is required.
Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.