Lyme disease can affect children, adults, and pets, and can sometimes be hard to diagnose. Whether you’ve been hiking in an area full of bugs, or simply sitting outside in your backyard, you can easily come into contact with a tick carrying Lyme disease.
Once you’ve been infected, there are ways of treating the disease, but diagnosing it can prove to be difficult. Here’s what you need to know about recognizing the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease and how treat them.
Lyme Disease in America
In the United States, the Western blacklegged tick is responsible for spreading Lyme disease on the West Coast. On the East Coast, the Eastern blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick, is responsible for spreading Lyme. The bacteria is then transmitted to humans through the bite of the infected tick.
The tick gets infected during its larval or nymph stage when it feeds on small animals like mice, birds, or squirrels that carry the bacteria which causes Lyme disease. The tick, now infected, passes on the bacteria to a human or another animal during a feeding cycle. The animal most responsible for transmitting the bacteria to ticks varies by region.
Difficult to Detect
The tick that transmits Lyme disease is no larger than a sesame seed. You may not even notice it at first. Additionally, the tick’s saliva contains an anesthetic-like substance that numbs your skin so you may not feel the bite. This makes knowing that you have Lyme disease difficult to determine.
However, there are tell-tale signs, like the signature rash of a Lyme disease-carrying tick that looks like a solid red oval or a bullseye. This rash can appear anywhere on the body and it often has a central red spot, surrounded by a clear circle with a wide red circle on the outside. The rash is a sign that the infection has started spreading within your skin tissues.
Usually, the rash expands and resolves over time, even if you aren’t treated for Lyme disease, and more often than not, most people with Lyme disease don’t remember having the rash. The initial red rash usually appears at the site of the bite within a few days to a month, but smaller rashes can appear three to five weeks later.
Another classic symptom of Lyme disease is fatigue. Whether or not you see the tick bite or the rash, early symptoms are likely to be flu-like. These symptoms include tiredness, exhaustion and lack of energy, which can take over your body and often be severe. You may find yourself needing a nap during the day or needing more hours of sleep than usual.
Symptoms of Lyme Disease
Other common flu-like symptoms of Lyme disease are headaches, dizziness, fever, muscle pain, and general malaise. It actually can be quite difficult to distinguish Lyme disease’s flu-like symptoms from the common flu or viral infection. And since the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease are found in other conditions, diagnosis can be difficult.
Diagnosing Lyme Disease
Lab tests are used to identify antibodies of the bacteria which can help confirm the diagnosis. These tests are most reliable a few weeks after an infection, after your body has had time to develop antibodies. One of the tests is the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test. This test is most often used to detect Lyme disease, however, it can sometimes provide false-positive results.
However, if the ELISA test is positive, the Western blot test is usually done to confirm the diagnosis. In the two-step approach, the Western blot will detect antibodies to several proteins of burgdorferi, and then the treatment process begins.
Antibiotics: The First Line of Treatment
Antibiotics are the usually the first line of treatment for Lyme disease, with the standard treatment for adults with Lyme disease being doxycycline, a tetracycline antibiotic. In children under the age of 12, amoxicillin is used because of the possible side effects of doxycycline.
Why Antibiotics First?
Intravenous antibiotics are sometimes indicated for more difficult cases such as late Lyme arthritis, meningitis, or neurologic Lyme disease. Antibiotics are critical for treating Lyme disease because without antibiotic treatment, the Lyme bacteria can evade the host immune system and persist in the body for a long time.
Stopping Lyme Disease from Spreading
Antibiotics go into the bacteria and either stop the multiplication of the bacteria or disrupt the cell wall of the bacteria and kill the bacteria. Stopping the growth or killing the bacteria gives the immune system a leg up in ridding the body of the infection. But without antibiotics, the infection in Lyme disease can more readily persist and disseminate.
Like all medications, antibiotics have the potential for side effects and sometimes, symptoms worsen for the first few days on an antibiotic. This is called a Herxheimer reaction and it occurs when the antibiotics start to kill the bacteria within the first 24 to 48 hours of starting the medication. During this time, the dead bacteria stimulate the immune system to release inflammatory cytokines and chemokines that can cause increased fever, aches and pain.
After finishing the course of antibiotic treatment, some people may still have lingering symptoms of fatigue, pain, or joint muscle aches, which can last up to six months or even longer. This condition is called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS).
Chronic Lyme Disease
PTLDS is sometimes referred to as chronic Lyme disease. It isn’t exactly known what causes it, but scientists think it may be some kind of immune response where remnants of the bacteria activate the immune system, which leads the immune system to attack healthy cells. This condition may be caused by the residual damage to body tissues from Lyme disease.
There is little evidence that says that extended antibiotic treatment for Lyme disease patients is beneficial. Additionally, long-term antibiotic treatments for Lyme have been associated with serious complications. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that patients considering long-term antibiotic treatment for Lyme should discuss this with a healthcare provider before doing so.
Alternative Treatments for Lyme Disease
There are a variety of other treatments aimed to treat Lyme disease, but the effectiveness of those treatments can be harmful. Bismacine, also known as chromacine, is an alternative-medicine drug that some people use to treat Lyme disease, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns people of this product.
This medicine, which is taken by injection, has reportedly caused hospitalization and at least one death and the FDA notes that bismacine contains high levels of bismuth, which can cause heart and kidney failure. Besides bismacine, other alternative treatments include light therapy, oxygen therapy, and a variety of herbal supplements. However, there is no evidence that these treatments are clinically effective either.
Preventing Lyme Disease
While there is no vaccine to prevent Lyme disease (since it was discontinued in 2002), the other prevention is to avoid areas where ticks may be present. For example, it’s not uncommon to get a tick bit on an outdoor adventure or while hiking, so it’s best to walk in the center of trails and to avoid walking through tall bushes or other vegetation.
Searching for Ticks
You can also repel ticks on skin and clothing by using insect repellents that contain DEET. After spending some time outdoors, even in your own yard, you can check your body for ticks by using a large mirror to view all parts of your body. If you see a tick, you should remove it with tweezers immediately. If a tick is attached to your skin for less than 24 hours, your chance of getting Lyme disease is extremely small.