Lyme disease is a multisystem bacterial infection caused by a bite from an infected deer (blacklegged) tick. Approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme Disease are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention each year. If left untreated, it can cause long-term pain and have negative effects on the heart, nervous system and joints.
Here’s what you should know about Lyme Disease, its symptoms and its treatments:
What Causes Lyme Disease?
There are four types of bacteria that can cause Lyme Disease around the globe. In the United States, only two types of bacteria have been connected to Lyme Disease:
- Borrelia burgdorferi – Most common type of Lyme disease-related bacteria
- Borrelia mayonii – Most common in Wisconsin and neighboring midwestern states
- Borrelia mayonii was only confirmed to cause Lyme Disease in 2016.
Who Gets Lyme Disease?
Lyme Disease affects people of all ages, genders and demographics. However, people who spend a lot of time outdoors, especially those who camp and hike, are at greater risk. Both adult and nymph (young) deer ticks can spread Lyme Disease, but humans are more likely to be bitten and infected by the much smaller nymph tick. Deer ticks that spread Lyme Disease are active year-round, even during fall and winter months, as long as the temperature is above freezing. Lyme Disease cannot be transmitted from dogs or cats to their human owners. It is also not possible for humans to transmit Lyme Disease to each other.
How Can You Avoid Getting Lyme Disease?
Fortunately, there are a few simple precautions humans can take to avoid getting Lyme Disease.
Firstly, you should always cover up to your highest comfort level when going outside. This is especially important if you’ll be hiking or camping in wooded or grassy areas. Ticks carrying Lyme Disease bacteria are especially prevalent in the upper Midwest, New England and the Mid-Atlantic area.
Secondly, you should always use EPA-registered insect repellents when spending time outdoors.
If you can, try to avoid spending time outdoors when ticks are most active, i.e. the hottest, most humid times of the year. Avoid walking through tall grass or heavy bushes; always opt for the clearest path on a trail.
Finally, always check yourself and your children for ticks after spending time outside.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Lyme Disease?
Lyme Disease symptoms appear at different times, depending on the stage of the infection.
The hallmark symptom of the disease is a skin rash. A small number of infected people develop a bullseye-shaped rash that can appear anywhere on the body. Lyme-related rash typically appears within 3 to 30 days after a person is bitten. The rash may expand in size and spread to other areas of the body.
Other key symptoms of Lyme Disease include:
- Flu-like symptoms: Fever, chills, extreme fatigue, head and neck stiffness
- Cognitive issues: Brain fog, memory issues
- Severe joint pain and swelling, especially in the knees and ankles
- Jaw pain
- Neurological problems: Meningitis, temporary paralysis, Bell’s palsy
- Heart problems: Irregular heartbeat, Lyme carditis
Even after treatment, some individuals may develop chronic Lyme Disease, also called post-treatment Lyme Disease. Persistent joint and muscle pain and cognitive issues are common in people with chronic Lyme Disease.
Lyme Disease Diagnosis and Testing
Lyme Disease is diagnosed using two different tests: an ELISA (Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test and a Western blot test.
ELISA is the most common blood test for Lyme Disease. The test detects antibodies to the bacteria most commonly associated with Lyme, Borrelia burgdorferi. Antibodies are produced by the immune system to fight infections. A positive ELISA test does not necessarily mean an individual has the disease, so an additional test, the Western blot test, is used to confirm a diagnosis.
If an individual has an erythema migrans rash and lives in an area known to be infested with Borrelia burgdorferi-carrying ticks, no additional laboratory testing is necessary to confirm Lyme Disease.
Lyme Disease Treatment
Lyme Disease is treated using a variety of antibiotics, including doxycycline, Cefuroxime axetil, and amoxicillin. Typically, these antibiotics are taken for up to 21 days. If the treatment doesn’t get rid of all of a person’s symptoms, they are said to have post-treatment Lyme Disease syndrome.
PTLDS can affect your musculoskeletal system and your cognitive function. Treatment typically focuses on relieving pain and restoring function. One of the most common symptoms of post-treatment Lyme Disease is inflammation and swelling in the major joints of the body. This can lead to mobility issues and eventually, it can cause arthritis.