What Is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is an infection that is transmitted through the bite of a tick infected with a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi.  Ticks typically get the bacterium by biting infected animals, like deer and mice according to health coaches in Rio Linda CA.  Most people who get tick bites do not get Lyme disease.  Not all ticks are infected, and the risk for contracting the disease increases the longer the tick is attached to the body.

Lyme Disease Symptoms: Early Stage

Within one to four weeks of being bitten by an infected tick, most people will experience some symptoms of Lyme disease.  A circular, expanding rash (called erythema migraines) at the site of the bite develops in about 70%-80% of cases.  Some people report flu-like symptoms at this stage, including fever, chills, headaches, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, joint pain, and muscle aches.

Lyme Disease Symptoms: As the Infection Spreads

If the disease is not detected and treated in its early stages, it can extend to more areas of the body, affecting the joints, heart, and nervous system (after several weeks to months after the initial bite).  Additional rashes may occur, and there may be intermittent periods of pain and weakness in the arms or legs.  Facial-muscle paralysis (Bell’s palsy), headaches, and poor memory are other symptoms at this stage, along with a rapid heartbeat and some loss of control of facial muscles.

Lyme Disease Symptoms: Late-Stage Disease

This is the most serious stage of the disease, when treatment was either not successful or never started (usually occurring many months after the initial bite).  Joint inflammation (arthritis), typically in the knees, becomes apparent, and may become chronic.  The nervous system can develop abnormal sensation because of disease of peripheral nerves (peripheral neuropathy), and confusion.  Heart problems are less common, but can include inflammation of the heart muscle and an irregular beat.

Do All Ticks Transmit Lyme Disease?

No.  In the northeastern and north-central U.S., the black-legged tick (or deer tick) transmits Lyme disease.  In the Pacific coastal U.S., the disease is spread by the western black-legged tick.  Other major tick species found in the U.S., including the lone star tick and the dog tick, have NOT been shown to transmit the Lyme disease bacterium.  But beware: Lyme disease has been reported in all 50 states, as well as in Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America.

How Lyme Disease is NOT Spread

You can’t catch Lyme disease by being around an infected person.  And although pets can become infected by a tick, they cannot transmit the disease to humans unless an infected tick falls off the animal and then bites a person. Insects such as mosquitoes, flies, or fleas cannot spread the disease to humans either.  These insects can carry the borrelia, however, according to the CDC, there is no credible evidence that Lyme disease can be transmitted through air, food, water, or from the bites of mosquitoes, flies, fleas, or lice. Only infected ticks have that honor.

Diagnosing Lyme Disease

Doctors can diagnose the disease through physical findings such as a “bull’s-eye” rash along with a history of symptoms. But not everyone has the rash, and not everyone can recall being bitten. Special blood tests can be taken three to four weeks after suspected contact to confirm the diagnosis.  Other tests, such as a spinal tap or skin biopsy, may be done to help diagnose or rule out other conditions.

Treating Lyme Disease

Most Lyme disease is curable with antibiotics, particularly when the infection is diagnosed and treated early.  Later stages might require longer-term, intravenous antibiotics.

Is There a Lyme Disease Vaccine?

Currently, there is no human vaccine for Lyme disease.  A vaccine was developed years ago for use in high-risk areas, but it is no longer available.

Preventing Lyme Disease

Avoid tick bites whenever possible by staying clear of grassy or wooded areas, especially May to July.  Cover your body head-to-toe when entering possible tick-infested areas.  Apply an insect repellent containing DEET directly to your skin. Insect repellents containing permethrin can be applied to clothes to kill ticks on contact, but never apply to the skin.  When coming in from outdoors inspect your body thoroughly for ticks; do the same for pets.  Wash your skin and scalp to knock off any ticks that are only loosely attached.

How to Remove a Tick

If you have a tick, it is important to remove it properly.  Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the part of the tick that’s closest to your skin – you want to grab the head, not the belly.  Slowly pull the tick straight out, without twisting it.  Wash the bite site with soap and warm water.  Throw the dead tick into the trash.  Do not use a lit match, nail polish, petroleum jelly, or other topical agents in an attempt to remove a tick.

In up to 90% of cases, the antibiotic cures the infection.  If it doesn’t, patients might get other antibiotics either by mouth or intravenously.

For early disseminated Lyme disease, which may happen when a Lyme infection goes untreated, oral antibiotics are recommended for symptoms such as facial palsy and abnormal heart rhythm.  Intravenous antibiotics are recommended if a person has meningitis, inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, or more severe heart problems.

In late-stage Lyme, a patient may receive oral or intravenous antibiotics.  Patients with lingering arthritis would receive standard arthritis treatment.

There is no treatment for post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome.

“Ten percent of people don’t get better after antibiotics,” Aucott says.  “We think it’s very significant if 30,000 people a year don’t get better.”

What areas are more likely to have Lyme Disease?

The majority of Lyme cases in 2018 (the latest year for which statistics are available) were in 14 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Who is likeliest to get Lyme disease?

Infection is more common in males up to age 15 and between the ages of 40 and 60, says Taege. “These are people who are more likely to play outside, and go camping, hunting, and hiking,” he says.

Aucott adds that Lyme infection drops off in older teens and those in their 20s “because they’re inside on their computers.”  Older adults, he says, tend to have more time to work in their backyards, which is where most Lyme infection is transmitted.

What’s the best way to prevent a tick bite?

Ticks can’t fly or jump, but instead live in shrubs and bushes, and grab onto someone when they pass by. To avoid getting bitten:

  • Wear pants and socks in the woods, areas with lots of trees, and while handling fallen leaves
  • Wear a tick repellent on your skin and clothing that has DEET, lemon oil, or eucalyptus.
  • For even more protection, use the chemical permethrin on clothing and camping gear.
  • Shower within 2 hours after coming inside, if possible.
  • Look at your skin and wash ticks out of your hair.
  • Put your clothing and any exposed gear into a hot dryer to kill whatever pests might remain.

How do you know if you’ve been bitten?

Given that the ticks are the size of a poppy seed, you’ve got to have pretty good eyes.  The CDC recommends that if you’ve been walking in the woods, in tall grass, or working in the garden, check your skin afterward, ideally in the shower or bath.  That way, you’ve removed your clothes, which may carry ticks, too.

What do you do if there’s a tick under your skin?

Remove it with a pair of fine-tipped tweezers as soon as possible, pulling upward with steady pressure.  If parts of the tick remain in the skin, also try to remove them with the tweezers.  After everything is out, clean the bite area with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.

Mead says you’re not likely to get infected if you remove the tick within 36 to 48 hours.

Some people have an allergic reaction to ticks, so they’ll notice a bite right away.

How do you dispose of a tick?

Place it in soapy water or alcohol, stick it to a piece of tape, or flush it down the toilet.

When should you see a doctor if you suspect you have Lyme?

The rash is a pretty good indication that you may have been bitten.  Take a photo of the rash and see your doctor, Aucott says.  At this stage of the illness, treatment with antibiotics will probably be successful.

If you don’t have the telltale rash but have a summer flu – fatigue, fever, headache but no respiratory symptoms like a cough – you may want to talk to your doctor, Aucott says.

Is there any progress on a vaccine for Lyme disease?

The FDA in July 2017 gave “fast-track” approval to French biotech company Valneva to test potential Lyme disease vaccine VLA15 on adults in the U.S. and Europe.  The vaccine is currently in the second phase of development.

What if a tick bites my dog?

The more ticks in your region, the likelier it is that your furry pal will bring them home. Mead says.

Dogs are much more likely than humans to be bitten by ticks, and where Lyme disease is more prevalent, up to 25% of dogs have evidence of past infection, he says.

“On the flip side, low rates of exposure in dogs is a good indicator that Lyme is not a problem in the area.”

And they can get sick. About 10% of dogs with Lyme disease will become ill. Common symptoms, which may show up 7-21 days after a tick bite, are lameness – your dog will appear to be walking on eggshells – a fever, lethargy, and enlarged lymph nodes. Dogs also get antibiotics for treatment.

What if my dog brings ticks into the home?

A Lyme vaccine is also available for dogs.