Lyme disease is the most common insect-borne disease in the U.S., by far. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records 30,000 cases annually, the agency believes that tenfold more go unreported. Today, many unknown traits of Lyme Disease remain up for debate.
“There is definitely some confusion and also some misinformation out there,” says Amy Schwartz, an epidemiologist at the CDC. “And it’s important to correct that, because without proper treatment, the condition can be devastating.”
In the content below, we break down what you need to know about Lyme Disease and explore stages and symptoms confirmed by scientists and medical experts that correlate with the increasingly common disease.
How Lyme Disease Spreads
Lyme disease is a complicated, infectious disease caused by bacteria and is transmitted to humans from an insect or tick bite. In most cases, it has been found that people develop this disease after a deer or black-legged tick bite, transferring the bacteria, borrelia burgdorferi, to the bloodstream.
The CDC and the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) both agree that the tick has to remain attached for 24 to 48 hours in order to transmit the Lyme-causing bacteria. However, other insects may also carry Lyme disease and cause infections of similar kind, according to the Michigan Lyme Disease Association. These may possibly include mosquitoes, fleas, spiders, and other kinds of ticks.
Despite what you might read online, most scientists agree that a bite from a blacklegged tick is really the only way to contract Lyme disease. Therefore, you will not contract Lyme Disease from sex, eating deer meat, or any tick except the blacklegged kind. Additionally, you also will not catch it directly from your pets or any other forest creatures. Only ticks can transmit the disease to humans.
When Lyme Disease Spreads
The disease most commonly spreads in late spring and early summer, when young (poppy-seed-size) ticks are active, and when people tend to spend more time outdoors.
Where Lyme Disease Spreads
Schwartz says both the tick and the diseases it carries are still most common in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and North Central U.S. “About 95 percent of Lyme cases still come from 14 states, all located within those regions,” she says. “But the number of counties within those states that we consider high risk for Lyme disease has gone up by more than 300 percent.”
According to the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), about 300,000 people are affected by this illness. In most cases, people who have spent some time or live in wooded areas are likely to catch Lyme disease.
How to Protect Yourself
Fortunately, you can follow the below steps to reduce your risk of being bitten by an infected tick in the first place.
Distance Yourself from Tick Infested Areas
If possible, avoid areas with ticks, particularly during peak tick season (late spring to early fall). These include wooded and brushy areas with high grasses and leaf litter.
Cover Up and Apply Insect Repellent
When spending time in a tick-infested area, dress carefully. Wear long sleeves, long pants, and long socks. Light colors are best because you can spot ticks more easily. As an added protective measure, tuck your pants into your socks and your shirt into your pants.
Check for Ticks and Wash Your Clothing
After being outdoors, check for ticks, especially in skin folds such as in the armpits, groin, and behind the ears. Remember that young ticks are tiny—about the size of a poppy seed—so they can be difficult to spot. You can explore outdoor safety tips about removing any ticks you do find.
If you cannot do a full tick-check, pop your clothes in the dryer for 15 minutes on high, to kill any ticks that may be hiding. As an additional preventative measure, consider tick-proofing your yard.
Stages and Symptoms of Lyme Disease
The bacteria from the tick bite can spread across your body and start a chain of autoimmune-like reactions. The Department of Rheumatology of University of Würzburg has found that symptoms generally affect the heart, skin, nervous system, and joints of the patients.
People suffering from Lyme disease essentially go through 3 stages. Each stage shows a different set of symptoms, determined by how long the bacteria has been present and where it has infected your body.
This stage is known as early localized Lyme disease and usually lasts between 1 and 4 weeks. Symptoms start to appear within 1 to 2 weeks after the bite. Symptoms typically go unnoticed with people in the first stage of Lyme Disease. However, during this stage, you may experience:
- A growing, circular bull’s-eye rash, also known as erythema migrans. This rash appears in 75% of Lyme Disease cases. If you know that you were bit by a blacklegged tick, closely monitor your body for this rash to appear around the site of the bite. The rash will most likely disappear after about 3 to 4 weeks. While bull’s-eye rash has been seen in most cases, some people may not exhibit this symptom and just have a solid red rash.
- Flu-like symptoms (with or without the rash) such as lack of energy, fever and chills, stiff neck and headache, swollen lymph nodes, and muscle and joint pain.
What If No Rash Appears?
If no such rash emerges—or if you never found a tick on your body—but you develop symptoms of Lyme disease after being in a tick-infected area during tick season, ask your doctor for a blood test. The test has two components to it. Therefore, it is crucial to confirm that your doctor performs both. “It’s a common misconception among doctors that you can skip the first part,” says IDSA president, Paul Auwaerter, M.D. “A lot of doctors do that, and they end up misinterpreting the results and misdiagnosing people.”
The timing of the tests is also important, he says. It can take weeks for the body to mount an immune response to Lyme-causing bacteria and to produce the antibodies that the blood tests are designed to measure. So, if you test negative in the first month after being bitten (or after symptoms emerge), you may want to get retested a few weeks later. “The test really can’t pick up infection reliably in the first few weeks,” says Auwaerter. “But if people have had symptoms for longer than that, it’s highly accurate.”
The second stage is referred to as the early disseminated Lyme disease that emerges after a month or so of the tick bite. During this stage, bacteria have begun spreading to different parts of your body. Some common systems patients may exhibit include:
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Numbness, pain, or weakness in the legs or arms
- Occasional rapid heartbeats
- Sore throat
- Vision changes
Patients have a general feeling of being unwell during this stage and may also develop a rash in areas aside from the tick bite. The condition may escalate in severity with cardiac conduction disturbances and meningitis.
The third and final stage is called the late disseminated Lyme diseases which may occur after months or even years after the tick bite. Some common symptoms include:
- Arthritis of large joints
- Brain disorders involving sleep, mood, and memory
- Difficulty concentrating
- Disturbances in heart rhythm
- Mental fogginess
- Numbness in the feet, hands, legs, or arms
- Problems following conversations
- Severe headaches
- Short-term memory loss
When to Seek Treatment
If you test positive for Lyme, or if you have a tick bite plus the telltale rash, your doctor will most likely prescribe the antibiotic doxycycline. A one-to-four-week course of the drug (depending on how you respond) will almost always wipe out the infection.
However, if you have a suspicion that you have contracted Lyme disease, do not wait for the onset of additional symptoms. In fact, many doctors say that you should not wait at all. “The sooner you get treatment the better, especially for the elderly or those with weak immune systems,” says Orly Avitzur, M.D., Consumer Reports’ medical director. “Without antibiotics, the bacteria that causes Lyme can spread to your muscles, joints, heart, and brain.”
Medical Treatment Options
According to the CDC and IDSA, a single dose of doxycycline taken within 72 hours of a tick bite can prevent the disease from emerging altogether. That drug does come with side effects as it can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight and cause nausea or vomiting in about 20 percent of people taking it.
Some doctors may alternatively prescribe a different antibiotic, such as amoxicillin. However, that approach has not been scientifically tested and is unclear if or how well it works.
Another option (especially for those planning a sun-filled vacation) is to skip doxycycline until necessary. Avitzur says this watch-and-wait approach should be done in consultation with your doctor: have a blood test to check for antibodies after a few weeks have passed, and take doxycycline if the blood test is positive or as soon as any symptoms emerge.
Integrative Lyme Disease Treatment with The LaCava Center
At the LaCava Center for Integrative Medicine, our doctors have noticed Lyme to be a smart and debilitating disease. We are known for successfully treating Lyme disease through integrative medicine.
If you have suffered from a debilitating disease and have not gotten better, or are experiencing any early signs and symptoms of Lyme Disease, we encourage you to contact us today at (847) 695-6262 or via our online form to discuss your case with our doctors!