Now that Summer is upon us, well, not officially as the calendar indicates but unofficially as Memorial Day indicates, so are the different types of insects/bugs that come along with the warmer months.
Summer is the season of Lyme Disease, the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the United States. Lyme Disease is a bacterial infection (caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi) that is transmitted to humans through the bite of a tick. Two types of ticks carry Lyme Disease in the U.S. Deer ticks spread the disease in the Northeast and the Midwest and Western black-legged ticks spread the disease along the Pacific coast, mostly in northern California and Oregon. Traditionally, these ticks are native to 13 states in the Northeast and Upper Midwest but Lyme Disease and other insect-carried diseases are spreading thanks to climate change. Numerous studies have found that the warmer weather across the continent has spread the home turf of Lyme-carrying ticks (“Environmental Health Perspective“). Lyme Disease is also found in Canada, Europe and Asia.
Image Credit: Tick Encounter Resource Center
How is Lyme Disease transmitted to humans or animals? When a tick bites you, bacteria travel to the tick’s salivary glands and then into your body through the skin. It takes about 24 hours for the tick to attach itself to the skin and begin to feed. The tick generally must be attached to you for about 36 hours in order to transmit Lyme Disease bacteria.
The main risk factors for Lyme Disease are:
- Spending time outdoors during warm months when ticks are most active (usually May-November, peak activity June-July).
- Having indoor/outdoor pets (ticks are carried indoors by your pet and then drop off and attach to you).
- Having a stone fence or bird feeder near your house (become homes for mice and where there are mice, there are ticks).
- Lyme Disease increases the longer a tick is attached to the body.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms are dependent on the stage of the disease. They can be 1st noticed weeks to months after the bite. Untreated it may progress from mild symptoms to serious, long-term disabilities.
1st Stage: Early Signs (seek medical attention at this stage when the disease is quite treatable and most people recover with just a dose of oral antibiotics; without treatment, antibiotic course becomes more serious); Flu-like symptoms (fever and chills); rash (erythema migraines) at the site of the bite; Another sign you may see is the hallmark bull’s-eye rash. This rash occurs in 80% of patients. In some cases the rash never appears, making recognizing the disease more difficult. Lack of energy or headache and stiff neck are also early-stage; these signs occur one to two weeks after infection but can also crop up as early as 3 days after the bite. Sometimes there are no symptoms at this stage.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
2nd Stage: memory problems; pain and weakness in the arms and legs
3rd Stage: may include swelling and pain (like arthritis) in the joints; weakness and paralysis in facial muscles; numbness and tingling in hands, feet or back; lack of energy that doesn’t get better
Untreated, you can get more serious symptoms over time such as tissue or nerve damage that may be severe or irreversible. Also, can lead to problems with the skin, joints, nervous system and the heart (can occur weeks, months, even years after the bite).
*If no symptoms occur during 1st stage, the 1st symptoms may be those found in 2nd or 3rd stage. *Some people don’t even remember getting bit by the tick.
After the rash stage, if it is not treated, the infection goes into a stage where the disease can spread. Post-Lyme Syndrome or Chronic Lyme (later stages) symptoms include fatigue that has been described as “fatigue that is not the normal tired but crippling, flu-like exhaustion.” Also, “muscles that are not just sore but literally make you unable to function”, (as quoted from a Chronic Lyme patient on lymedisease.org).
A few different infections from ticks can cause Lyme Disease-like symptoms which is why disease testing is important for proper treatment as soon as possible. Diagnosing Lyme Disease can be very difficult. Because of the climate change discussed early, is one reason diagnosing is difficult. Areas that have become unusually warmer than normal are having problems with ticks spreading the disease. Also, symptoms are widely varied and might appear to be a variety of other conditions and infections is the biggest obstacle in properly and rapidly diagnosing Lyme Disease.
Diagnosing begins with the doctor taking a careful medical history and physical exam. The doctor will ask questions about your physical signs and symptoms and your activities to try to find out if you have been around infected ticks. Blood tests are also used to help confirm the diagnosis. These blood tests are used to check for certain antibodies in your blood that could mean you have Lyme Disease. The decision about when to use blood tests for Lyme Disease depends on whether your doctor strongly thinks you have Lyme Disease and whether the test results will change the course of treatment. A skin biopsy can also be done along with imaging. Note: If possible, put the tick that was attached to you in a dry jar or Ziplock bag and take it to the doctor with you. Sometimes tests can be done on the tick to see if it is a carrier of Lyme Disease.
As stated before, Lyme Disease is treatable. The main treatment is antibiotics which usually cures it within 3 weeks of starting treatment. It is important to get treatment as soon as possible. The earlier antibiotic is started after the infection, the faster and more completely you will recover. Left untreated, the effects are more serious. Although a person often gets better with antibiotic therapy, in rare cases symptoms can last the rest of one’s life. Later stage treatment includes antibiotics and NSAIDS, aspirin or ibuprofen for arthritis symptoms. Even after successful treatment, you can get it again so it is important to continue to protect yourself against tick bites. In rare instances symptoms may not go away even after antibiotic therapy has cured the infection. One possible reason why symptoms may take longer to improve is that the person may not actually have Lyme Disease or may have another illness at the same time with symptoms that don’t respond to antibiotic treatment. Lyme Disease may trigger fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or may be misdiagnosed as having Lyme Disease when they really have a chronic fatigue syndrome.
Just like most diseases and conditions, prevention is key! You want to cover up as much skin as possible when outside in grass and woods. Wear a hat, long-sleeve shirt and long pants tucked in your socks. It’s also easier to see ticks on light-colored clothes. If possible, avoid densely wooded or grassy areas. There’s a common myth that ticks only live in woods, but they can be found anywhere with grass. Purchase and use repellent that has a chemical such as DEET, IR3535 or Picaridin. And don’t forget to check your pets who have been outside. You can’t get Lyme Disease from pets but they can bring infected ticks inside and the ticks can fall off the pet and attach to you. After being outside, bathe and shower immediately and check your body carefully including your hair. Ticks that carry Lyme Disease are tiny, about the size of a pinhead. If you notice ticks, remove them as soon as possible. Infected ticks usually don’t spread Lyme Disease until they have been attached for at least 36 hours. If you feel sick, seek medical attention.
In conclusion, there are more than 20,000 Lyme Disease cases reported to the CDC every year, but experts believe upwards of 300,000 individuals are infected annually. It is important for you to be your own advocate when it comes to Lyme Disease suspicion or any disease or condition. Due to the difficulty in diagnosing, the disease may not be diagnosed as early and more severe symptoms can occur or persists. We know our bodies and when we suspect that there is a problem, we need to be adamant in getting the healthcare professionals to pursue and act quickly on what we suspect the problem to be. Don’t be intimated or afraid to speak up when it concerns yours’ or your family member’s health. Do your own research and present your findings to the healthcare professionals. Sometimes what you have experienced through signs and symptoms and the knowledge you may acquire can help in diagnosing and treatment.
For more information or help with Lyme Disease:
- American Lyme Disease Foundation (aldf.com)
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (niaid.nih.gov)
- Insect Repellents: Use and Effectiveness (epa.gov)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov)
*The information in this post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat Lyme Disease. Seek advice/treatment from your own medical professionals.