What Is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, and in rare cases Borrelia mayonii. The most common vector-borne illness from a tick throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia, Lyme disease is transmitted to humans and animals from the bite of an infected, black-legged tick, commonly known as a deer tick. Individuals who live or spend time in grassy or wooded areas are more likely to contract this illness than those living elsewhere. Additionally, individuals with domesticated animals that frequent outdoor, wooded, and grassy areas also have a higher risk of developing Lyme disease than those with indoor-only animals or those without pets. Campers, hikers, and those who work in gardens and parks are at a higher risk of illness. Most transmissions occur in the summer months when ticks are most active and when more people spend time outdoors. However, tick bites can also occur in the fall and warmer days of winter. During mild winter seasons, ticks may appear and flourish earlier than usual.
How Do You Get Lyme Disease?
This condition is caused by bacteria transmitted through the bite of an infected Lyme disease tick or deer tick. Infected ticks are typically found in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, upper Midwest, and the Pacific Coast, especially in northern California, but they may reside elsewhere. These ticks can attach to virtually any part of your body, but they often cling to hard-to-see areas, such as the groin, armpits, and scalp. In most cases, the infected tick must be attached to its host for 36–48 hours or more to spread the bacterium to the host.
Lyme Disease Stages
There are three main stages of Lyme disease known as early localized Lyme disease, early disseminated Lyme disease, and late disseminated Lyme disease. But, the stages may overlap, and not every patient who contracts Lyme disease goes through all three. In addition, if untreated, Lyme symptoms can continue to worsen and transform into a long-lived and debilitating illness.
Early Localized Lyme Disease
Symptoms associated with early localized (or acute) Lyme disease can begin hours, days, or weeks after an infected tick bite. At this early stage, the infection has not yet spread through the body. Therefore, Lyme disease is the easiest to cure at this stage. Symptoms may include a skin rash, flu-like symptoms, chills, fever, fatigue, headache, stiff neck, muscle soreness, joint pain, swollen lymph nodes, and a sore throat.
Early Disseminated Lyme Disease
Early disseminated Lyme disease may develop several weeks or months following the initial tick bite. At this stage, bacteria begin to spread the infection throughout the body. In addition to flu-like symptoms, early disseminated Lyme disease is characterized by an increase in symptoms like chills, fever, headaches, fatigue, pain, weakness, arm and leg numbness, vision changes, heart problems, chest pain, rash on the body, and facial paralysis (Bell's palsy).
Late Disseminated Lyme Disease
If Lyme disease isn't promptly or effectively treated during the initial two stages, late disseminated Lyme disease, also known as chronic Lyme disease and post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, can occur weeks, months, and even years after the tick bite. At this point, the infection has spread through the body, and many patients develop chronic arthritis in addition to an increase in neurological and cardiac issues and symptoms.
Chronic Lyme disease symptoms may include arthritis in joints or at the bite site; severe headaches or migraines; vertigo and dizziness; migrating pains that appear and disappear in the joints and tendons; stiff, aching neck; sleep problems; insomnia; heart-rhythm disturbances; focus and concentration issues; numbness in the arms, legs, hands, or feet; problems speaking, carrying conversation, and processing information; and severe fatigue, among other symptoms.
Lyme Disease Symptoms
Infected tick bite symptoms can develop and display differently on each person and the signs of Lyme disease can likewise vary widely in severity. Lyme disease is divided into three stages, but symptoms of this disease can overlap. Some patients also present in later stages without ever having experienced symptoms of the earlier disease stages. Overall, the most common symptoms of Lyme disease include the following. Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you have any of these or the symptoms mentioned above.
- Red Oval Or Bull's Eye Rash
- Mental Fogginess
- Joint Pain
- Muscle & Tendon Aches
- Swollen Lymph Nodes
- Sleep Disturbances & Insomnia
- Difficulty Concentrating
Lyme Disease Treatment
Lyme disease is most effectively treated in the early stages. Treatment for early localized Lyme disease is a simple course of antibiotics taken over 10–14 days to treat the infection. Early diagnosis and prompt and proper antibiotic treatment of Lyme disease can help prevent late Lyme disease symptoms. To make a diagnosis, your doctor will consider your symptoms, if you were exposed to a Lyme-disease-carrying black-legged tick, the possibility of other illnesses accounting for the same symptoms; and the rest of multiple lab tests.
Most Lyme disease tests check for antibodies made by the body in response to an infection. These antibodies can take multiple weeks to develop. Thus, if you are tested immediately after you are bitten, the tests may not confirm you have Lyme disease, even if you have it. In this case, you will likely require another round of tests later. Medications used to treat Lyme disease include doxycycline, amoxicillin, or cefuroxime, which are first-line treatments for both adults and children. Cefuroxime and amoxicillin are used to treat individuals who are nursing or breastfeeding. Some forms of Lyme disease, including those with cardiac and central nervous system effects, require intravenous antibiotics. After improving an IV, healthcare providers may switch to prescribing an oral medication to complete the course of treatment, which usually takes 14–28 days.
Facial palsy resulting from neurologic Lyme disease is typically treated with oral antibiotics and Lyme meningitis/radiculoneuritis may be treated with either oral or IV antibiotics, depending on the severity of the infection. Lyme carditis, which occurs when Lyme disease bacteria enter the heart's tissues can typically be treated with oral or IV antibiotics, depending on the severity. Some patients may require a temporary pacemaker. Lyme arthritis is often treated with a 4-week course of antibiotics, though some patients with persistent joint inflammation and pain after the first course may require a second course. In some cases, joint swelling and pain can persist beyond the two courses. The cause of this is unknown, but it is thought to be due to immunologic factors.
Is Lyme Disease Contagious?
No. There is no evidence to prove that Lyme disease is contagious between humans nor animals. Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pregnant women cannot transmit the disease to their fetuses through their breast milk. This infection is caused by bacteria transmitted to humans and other animals through the bite of an infected black-legged deer tick. These bacteria are found in body fluids, but there is no evidence to suggest that Lyme disease can be spread to another person through coughing, sneezing, kissing, or otherwise. Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that Lyme disease can be sexually transmitted nor transmitted to others through blood transfusions.
How To Prevent Lyme Disease
Currently, a Lyme disease vaccine is not available, though there are other steps you may take to reduce your risk of contracting Lyme disease. Consider the following tips for Lyme disease prevention and precaution to decrease your risk of getting the disease.
- When in wooded or grassy areas, wear closed-toed shoes, long pants tucked into your socks, a long-sleeved shirt, a hat, and gloves.
- Stay on trails and avoid walking through low bushes and long grasses while hiking, walking, or running in wooded or grassy areas.
- Keep your dog on a leash in wooded or grassy areas.
- Apply an insect repellant with a 20% higher concentration of DEET than you would normally to your skin (avoid children's hands, eyes, and mouth during application).
- Do what you can to tick-proof your yard by clearing brush and leaves where ticks live, mowing your lawn regularly, and stacking wood nearly in dry and sunny areas to discourage the presence of tick-carrying rodents.
- Don't assume you are immune to Lyme disease, as you can contract Lyme disease more than once in your lifetime.
- Check every inch of your clothing, your skin, your children, and your pets for ticks. Be especially cautious after spending time outdoors in wooded or grassy areas.
- Look for ticks vigilantly; deer ticks are usually as small as a pinhead, so they may not be visually apparent during a quick inspection.
- Shower as soon as you return home and use a washcloth to exfoliate your skin. Ticks can remain on the skin for hours, even before attaching themselves to the skin.
- Should you identify a tick, remove the tick as soon as possible using tweezers. Gently grasp the tick by placing the tweezers around its head or mouth. Avoid crushing or squeezing the tick and, instead, pull the tick carefully and steadily away from the skin. Consult with your primary care physician about sending your tick to a lab to be tested for pathogens.