In 1975, in Lyme, Connecticut, a large number of children were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. After thorough examinations, researchers discovered the affected children all lived and played near wooded areas where deer ticks are most common. It was here that Lyme disease was first recognized.
Lyme disease is a bacterial illness spread through the bite of infected ticks. In fact, there are over a dozen tick-borne illnesses diagnosed in North America and Europe and Lyme disease is the most common. The disease is carried by deer ticks, also known as blacklegged ticks. This is not the only tick to carry Lyme disease, but it is the only one that can transmit the disease to humans and animals.
Deer ticks hide in low brush areas and range in size from a pinhead to a pencil eraser. They attach to any part of an animal’s or person’s body by burrowing their barbed mouth into the skin. While feeding over a period of days, an infected tick transmits bacteria to its host.
Lyme Disease Symptoms
There are two stages of Lyme disease: early and late.
Early Stage of Lyme Disease
Early Lyme disease is frequently recognized by an expanding skin rash called erythema migrans. Redness usually appears at the site of the tick bite within three days to a month. This redness expands, but the rash may clear at its center as it grows, resulting in a “bull’s-eye” appearance. This rash is a hallmark of the Lyme disease, appearing in 70 to 80 percent of those infected.
Other symptoms attributed to early Lyme disease are flu-like in nature and include fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headache, and chills.
Late Stage of Lyme Disease
Late Lyme disease presents a host of different problems for the infected person. These symptoms may not appear until weeks, months, or years after a tick bite and are more severe than Early Lyme disease. Most symptoms are curable if treated promptly.
Arthritis is most likely to appear in one or more large joints, especially the knees. The nervous system is also affected, causing temporary nerve paralysis of the face (known as Bell’s palsy), numbness, and even meningitis, which is an infection of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. In rare cases, heart problems, such as an irregular heartbeat occur, but only last a few weeks and these are not permanent.
Diagnosing Lyme Disease
Lyme disease is a tricky illness to diagnose, since many of its symptoms are common to other disorders. The trademark "bull's-eye" rash does not occur in every case, and ticks, because of their small size and painless bites, are frequently difficult to locate and often go undetected.
If you do not have the characteristic "bull's-eye" rash, a physician may ask detailed questions about your history and the possibility of any exposure to ticks.
They may also run lab tests, but those are only effective in the late stages of Lyme disease, since the tests detect antibodies created to the disease, not the disease itself.
Treating Lyme Disease
Almost all cases of Lyme disease are treated with oral antibiotics. These will cure the infection rapidly and completely in early stages, and improve the symptoms of late stage Lyme disease. Antibiotics are usually taken for 14 to 21 days.
In late stage Lyme disease, the antibiotics will eliminate the disease, though symptoms may linger for several days. Lyme disease is rarely life-threatening, but can cause permanent damage to joints or the nervous system if undiagnosed for several years.
Preventing Lyme Disease
The main cause of Lyme disease is deer ticks found in wooded and grassy areas. Most cases of Lyme disease happen in the spring and summer months, when ticks in the nymph stage seek blood meals to fuel their growth to adults. During these months, people tend to wear less clothing, exposing more skin for ticks to sink in their “teeth”.
A few simple precautions can decrease the risk of catching the disease.
Most cases of Lyme disease are concentrated in the coastal northeast U.S. and Northern California, but it has been reported in almost all states. Avoid areas where ticks are common, such as brushy or wooded areas. Stay on trails and avoid overgrown grass.
Do your best to cover your legs and arms by wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Tuck in any loose clothing to make it difficult for ticks to crawl under clothing.
Treat clothes and camping equipment with an insecticide known as permethin, which kills ticks on contact.
Carefully check for ticks after spending time in wooded or grass areas.
Even if you follow the above precautions, it is always good to thoroughly check for any ticks that have latched on to your skin. They are often no bigger than the head of a pin and may resemble a new freckle or speck of dirt. It requires investigation, but can prevent the onset of Lyme disease.
Removing a Tick from Your Skin
If you do find a tick on your skin, it is important to remove it as early as possible, as it takes more than 24 hours for a deer tick to transmit the bacteria.
There is one proper way to remove a tick. Using tweezers, gently grasp the tick near its head or mouth where they enter the skin; be careful not to squeeze too hard. Do not grab the tick by the body. You do not want to crush it, only remove it. Once you have a firm grip, slowly pull the tick straight out. After removal, apply antiseptic or alcohol to the bite area.
Do NOT try to burn the tick, twist it, or squeeze it. This will cause the head to detach and embed in the skin, and carries a risk of additional infection unrelated to Lyme disease. Contact your doctor if you have not removed the entire tick. If you have removed it within 24 hours, chances are you do not have Lyme disease, but monitor the bite over the next week to be sure.
Vigilance and Persistence
The best defense against Lyme disease is vigilance and persistence. If you’ve been in wooded or grassy areas, make it a habit to carefully check for ticks and properly remove any you find. While most cases aren’t life-threatening, Lyme disease can cause a host of complications for those infected, so it’s important to see a doctor if symptoms arise.