Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. The disease is spread by a bite from an infected deer tick. Deer ticks feed on the blood of animals and humans and can harbor the disease and spread it when they bite.
The signs and symptoms of Lyme disease come in three stages.
Stage 1: Shortly after the tick bite
- Classic bulls-eye rash called erythema migraines at the site of the bite.
- Generalized symptoms of fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, swollen lymph nodes
Stage 2: Develop over the next few weeks
- Loss of the muscle tone on the face called Bell’s Palsy
- Severe headaches and neck stiffness due to meningitis
- Shooting pains
- Heart palpitations and dizziness
- Joint pain in large joints
Stage 3: May not develop until weeks, months or years after a tick bite
- Intermittent bouts of arthritis
- Severe joint pain and swelling
- Neurological complaints including numbness or tingling in hands and feet
The above three stages are a generalization of the course of the disease. As with many conditions different people exhibit different signs and symptoms of Lyme disease. Some people never develop a bull’s eye rash. Some people only develop arthritis and for others the only symptoms of the disease are problems with the nervous system. Some patients will exhibit all the signs and others very few.
Many of the symptoms of Lyme disease are similar to the symptoms of numerous other diseases. Fever, muscle aches and fatigue of Lyme disease can easily be mistaken for viral infections such as influenza. Joint pain can be mistaken for other types of arthritis and neurologic concerns can mimic those caused by other conditions such as multiple sclerosis. And of course, the converse is true that some patients may be misdiagnosed with Lyme disease displaying these symptoms. If you suspect Lyme disease always seek appropriate medical attention.
Lyme disease is typically diagnosed with a history and physical exam and a blood test. The patient is asked if they have been in areas where Lyme disease is known to occur and the patient’s skin and scalp are examined for signs of bite infections. Common symptoms of the disease are recorded and a blood test is taken to detect whether the patient has antibodies to the Lyme disease bacterium.
Treatment for Lyme Disease:
- Antibiotics given in the early stages of the disease usually allow for a rapid and complete recovery.
- Patients treated in later stages of the disease also respond well to antibiotics.
- A small percentage of patients have symptoms that last for long periods of time. Their infection may trigger an autoimmune response, which causes continuing symptoms of muscle and joint pain, arthritis, and cognitive defects, sleep disturbance and chronic fatigue.
How to Protect Yourself from Tick Bites:
- Avoid tick-infested areas such as trails with overgrown grass, brush and leaf litter. Remember ticks do not jump or fly, they crawl on to people as they brush against them.
- Use insect repellent containing a 20-30% DEET concentration on clothes and exposed skin.
- Wear light colored protective clothing. Tuck your pant legs into your socks to prevent ticks from crawling under your clothing.
- Check your clothing daily for any hitchhikers.
- Remove any ticks on your skin immediately. Because ticks need at least a day before they can transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, you can reduce your exposure with quick removal of the tick. Grasp the tick firmly and close to the skin. Pull the tick’s body away from the skin without crushing the body. Do not be alarmed if the tick’s mouthparts remain in the skin. Cleanse the area with an antiseptic.
Take the most precautions during the months of May, June and July. Be aware of the prevalence of tick infestation in your area. Early diagnosis and proper treatment of Lyme disease is important to prevent the complications of infection and late stage illness. If you notice the characteristic bulls-eye rash or other symptoms consult your health care provider immediately.