If you love the outdoors, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection spread through a bite from the tiny deer tick. In 2009 alone, there were nearly 30,000 confirmed cases, and another 10,000 probable cases in the United States. Update: in 2014, there were approximately 22,000 confirmed cases.
Lyme disease is an inflammatory illness caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, commonly known as Borreliosis. Deer ticks pick up the bacteria from mice and other small mammals, then introduce it to humans through their saliva.
The disease is most often spread in late spring, summer, and early fall, when deer ticks are most active. Because deer ticks are incredibly tiny, many people who contract Lyme disease never even realize they’ve been bitten. Though cases have been reported in most parts of the U.S., Lyme disease is most common in the northeast, great lakes region, and the Pacific coast.
There are three recognized stages of Lyme disease: primary, early disseminated, and chronic persistent. They range in severity, depending on how long the disease has been present.
The first stage generally resembles the flu. Symptoms include chills, fever, headache, loss of energy, and muscle pain. The one telltale sign of Lyme disease at this stage is a “bulls eye” rash, with a flat, or slightly raised, red spot at the site of the bite, often including light area in the center. The presence of this rash is a good indicator of Lyme disease infection, though not everyone who contracts the disease develops a rash.
Diagnosis is complicated by the fact that the disease has different effects in different people. Not everyone who contracts Lyme disease exhibits all of the symptoms. Some people never get sick at all, or experience only mild symptoms, while others contract debilitating, and even life-threatening, conditions.
Later-stage Lyme disease symptoms include body-wide itching, joint inflammation, a stiff neck, depression, and erratic or unusual behavior. Over time, these conditions can worsen and develop into an irregular heartbeat, impaired concentration, memory disorders, nerve damage, numbness, chronic pain, facial paralysis, trouble sleeping, and vision problems.
If caught early enough, Lyme disease can be effectively treated with antibiotics. Doctors will often prescribe a course of antibiotics to a patient who has knowingly been bitten by a tick, or who exhibits symptoms in combination with the distinctive rash.
A blood test can also check for the disease by searching for antibodies, which the body produces to fight off the bacteria. Unfortunately, there is a high incidence of false negatives with these tests. In fact, people with the worst infections often test negative, because all of their antibodies have combined with the bacteria, and can’t be detected in the blood.
If you believe you may have been bitten by a tick, or you begin to suffer from any of the symptoms of Lyme disease, be sure to see your doctor. Catching the disease in its earliest stages is key to preventing a full-blown case of chronic Lyme disease.
If you routinely spend a lot of time outdoors during deer tick season, you can take some precautions to minimize your potential for exposure. When walking or hiking in wooded or grassy areas, always apply insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, tuck your pant cuffs into your shoes or socks, and wear high boots. Wearing light colored clothing is also a good idea, because it makes it easier to spot ticks. Check yourself frequently while spending time outdoors, and afterward. If you have pets that go outdoors, it’s possible for them to bring the ticks into your home, so be sure to check them, too.
While it’s not possible to safeguard yourself against Lyme disease 100%, by being aware of the signs and symptoms, you can better protect your long-term health.
For further information on Lyme disease, visit the CDC web site.