Lyme disease is a bacterial disease transmitted through the bites of infected black-legged or deer ticks. Your chance of developing Lyme disease usually depends on the kind of tick that bites you and the duration the tick was attached to you. A black-legged tick must be attached to your body for at least 24 hours to transmit the disease to you.
Symptoms can occur anywhere from 3 to 30 days after the bite. And can be wide-ranging, depending on the stage of the infection. In some cases, symptoms can appear months after the bite. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans. However, if left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.
You’re more likely to get Lyme disease if you live or spend time in grassy and heavily wooded areas. Because, this is where ticks carrying Lyme disease thrive. Therefore, it’s important to take common-sense precautions in tick-infested areas.
What Causes Lyme Disease?
Four species of bacteria primarily cause Lyme disease. These are; Borrelia burgdorferi, Borrelia mayonii, Borrelia afzelii, and Borrelia garinii bacteria. While the first two are the main cause of the disease in the United States, the rest two spread the disease in Asia and Europe.
Infected black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, are what transmit the disease to humans. You become infected when an infected deer tick bites you, through which the bacteria enter your skin. They then enter your bloodstream, thereby infecting you. Besides, you should also note that a tick must be in contact with your body for more than 24 hours, say 36 to 48 hours, to transmit the infection.
Signs And Symptoms Of Lyme Disease
The signs and symptoms of Lyme disease depend on its different stages. They are as follows:
Stage 1: Early Localized Lyme Disease
The first symptoms of Lyme disease often surface within one to two weeks after a tick bite. They include:
- Bull’s eye or erythema migrans (a circular rash that is red in the center and at the edges)
- Stiff neck
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Joint and muscle pain
But, in a few cases, the symptoms associated with the first stage may be completely missing.
Stage 2: Early Disseminated Infection
If you don’t treat the infection in its initial stage, it may proceed to the next stage and display symptoms such as:
- The rash expands at the site of the bite.
- Pain or numbness in your arms and legs
- Poor memory
- Inability to concentrate
- Conjunctivitis or damaged eye tissues
- Pain and inflammation of knee joints
- Heart problems
Stage 3: Late Persistent Lyme disease
If you leave Lyme disease untreated, it could be dangerous for your body. And these symptoms may persist even months or years after the initial infection:
- Numbness or tingling in your hands, legs or back
- Fatigue and weakness
- No control over your facial muscles
- Short-term memory loss
- Heart problems that may occur months or years after the initial infection
This stage is the most dangerous, therefore must be immediately attended to medically.
Your doctor will take your history, including recent travel history, and also perform a physical examination.
Diagnosing Lyme disease can be difficult. Because many of the symptoms and signs are non-specific. They are also similar to those of other conditions, such as the flu and other viral illnesses. The rash is the only symptom that is unique to Lyme disease, but not everyone develops the rash. Also, ticks are very small and their bites are usually painless. Due to this, some people may not realize that they have been bitten.
Your doctor may order the following tests:
- ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) is used to detect antibodies against B. burgdorferi. It is most reliable if performed within 4-6 weeks of suspected infection.
- Western blot can be used to confirm a positive ELISA test. It checks for the presence of antibodies to specific B. burgdorferi proteins.
- Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is used to evaluate people with persistent Lyme arthritis or nervous system symptoms. It is performed on joint fluid or spinal fluid.
Treatment is best in the early stages. Early treatment is a simple 14 to 21 day course of oral antibiotics. This is to eliminate all traces of infection. Medications used to treat Lyme disease include:
- doxycycline for adults and children older than 8 years old
- cefuroxime and amoxicillin for adults, younger children, and women who are nursing or breastfeeding
However, chronic Lyme disease treatment requires intravenous antibiotics for a period of 14 to 21 days. Though this treatment eliminates the infection, your symptoms improve more slowly.
Preventing tick bites
The following precautions can help prevent you from tick bites when outdoors. This is especially in grassy or heavy woody areas. Use measures such as:
- Wearing clothes that fully cover your arms and legs.
- Tucking your trousers into your socks.
- Wearing a wide-brimmed hat.
- Applying insect repellent that contains DEET to clothes, hats and skin.
- Showering and checking for ticks soon after being outdoors in areas prone to ticks.
- Removing ticks properly.
How to spot and remove ticks properly
The risk of developing Lyme disease is low if the tick is removed within 24 hours, because ticks need to be attached to your skin for at least 36 hours before the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria can enter your bloodstream. So removing a tick as soon as you notice it can prevent infection.
To remove a tick safely:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers or a tick-removal tool. You can buy these from some pharmacies, vets and pet shops.
- Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible.
- Slowly pull upwards, taking care not to squeeze or crush the tick. Dispose of it when you’ve removed it.
- Clean the bite with antiseptic or soap and water.
However, see your doctor if you are having trouble removing a tick or any concerns.