Lyme disease is a serious illness caused by a bacterium carried by blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks. Humans can contract Lyme disease if bitten by an infected tick. It is important to note that ticks can be extremely small. In some cases, they are almost impossible to see. Many people who develop Lyme disease did not even realize they had a tick bite.
Fortunately, Lyme disease is highly treatable, especially if caught early. Learning how to prevent, detect, and treat Lyme disease can be key to protecting yourself and your family.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way to avoid Lyme disease is to reduce your exposure to ticks. There are many ways to prevent tick bites--but no method is foolproof.
One of the best strategies is to stay out of wooded areas and high-grass fields. If you are hiking or camping, it's smart to use an insect repellant on your skin. To be extra cautious, you may also want to treat your clothing with tick repellent or buy pre-treated clothing.
The CDC recommends that your insect repellant contain at least 20 percent of an ingredient known as DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide). If you are interested in pre-treating your clothing, look for products that contain permethrin. Permethrin repels ticks, and remains effective through several washings.
Recognizing the symptoms of Lyme disease may allow you to seek treatment quickly. Remember, it is possible to be bitten by a tick without realizing it. Even if you don't believe you have been in a high-tick area, see a doctor immediately if you notice early symptoms of Lyme disease. Without treatment, Lyme disease can become more serious.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) identify several symptoms as indicative of Stage 1Lyme disease:
- In 70 to 80 percent of cases, patients with Lyme disease develop a rash that looks like a "bull's eye." This appears as a slightly raised redness at the bite site. The rash is not usually itchy or painful, but may be warm to touch.
- General itchiness
- Fever and chills
- Headache or lightheadedness
- General ill feeling
- Muscular pain or stiffness, particularly in the neck
If Lyme disease goes untreated, the symptoms become more serious over time. The symptoms may also come and go, so it is important to see a doctor even if you seem to be feeling better sometimes. The symptoms of Stage 2 Lyme disease may appear within weeks or months:
- Paralysis or weakness of facial muscles
- Heart palpitations
- Severe headaches and neck stiffness
- Swelling and pain in the large joints, such as the knees
The symptoms of Stage 3 Lyme disease may occur months, or even years, after the initial infection:
- Irregularities in muscle movement
- Arthritis in the large joints
- Short-term memory problems and speech problems
- Numbness, tingling, and neurological symptoms
If you notice any symptoms of Lyme disease, be sure to seek medical attention right away. Receiving early treatment can reduce your risk of suffering serious complications in the future. Your doctor can confirm the presence of Lyme disease through laboratory tests, usually a simple blood test.
If you are diagnosed with Lyme disease, you will likely be placed on a course of antibiotics for two to four weeks. Your doctor will determine which antibiotic is best for you based on your symptoms and the stage of the disease. Antibiotics frequently used to treat Lyme disease include doxycycline, amoxicillin, and cefuroxime axetil.
Other treatment options include pain medications, such as ibuprofen. These can be used to treat specific symptoms of Lyme disease, like joint stiffness. The CDC notes that patients with specific neurological or cardiac conditions may need intravenous treatment with other drugs such as ceftriaxone or penicillin.
Post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS) affects approximately 10 to 20 percent of people diagnosed with and treated for Lyme disease. The symptoms are the same or similar to the symptoms of Lyme disease, including muscle and joint pain, sleep problems, and fatigue.
It isn't clear why some patients continue to suffer these symptoms after receiving treatment. Most experts believe that PTLDS occurs because of lingering damage that Lyme disease causes to the body's tissues and immune system. Studies have shown that antibiotics do not improve the symptoms of PTLDS, and may actually do further harm. Instead, the CDC reports that doctors commonly offer similar treatments to those that are offered for chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.
If you have been treated for Lyme disease, but are still experiencing symptoms, it is important to continue to see your doctor. Suffering with PTLDS can be frustrating. The CDC recommends reaching out to family and friends, who can offer you support during your illness. Taking time to rest and eating a healthy diet can also be helpful. Although it may take time, the majority of PTLDS patients make a full recovery.
HealthAhead Hint: Be Proactive
The CDC reports that patients who receive appropriate antibiotic treatment in the early stages of Lyme disease usually have a complete and rapid recovery. Unfortunately, if left undiagnosed, Lyme disease can become more serious and cause lingering complications. Remember, it is possible to contract Lyme disease without realizing that a tick has bitten you. Protect yourself and your family from Lyme disease: Make sure you know the early symptoms, and seek immediate treatment if you believe you or someone you love may be infected.