Is It Lyme Disease? Check Your Symptoms

Written by Erica Roth | Published on August 12, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on August 12, 2014

What Is Lyme Disease?

lyme-disease-tick

Lyme disease is an illness that’s caused by bacteria carried by infected ticks. If you’ve been bitten by a tick and show any of the early symptoms of Lyme disease, you should see your doctor. Lyme disease is treatable, but it can cause serious health problems if you wait too long to be treated. Many people with Lyme disease don’t even know they have it until their symptoms are advanced. Understand the signs and symptoms so you can receive treatment as soon as possible.

Why Is Lyme Disease So Hard to Diagnose?

The problem with diagnosing Lyme disease isn’t in the diagnosis itself. Your doctor can confirm you’re sick through a physical exam and blood work. Instead, identifying Lyme disease can be difficult because people don’t always know that a tick has bitten them. Many symptoms of Lyme disease mimic signs of other illnesses, including the flu. In addition, the ticks that spread Lyme disease can be small and difficult to spot, even when they’re engorged (full with your blood).

Not everyone who has Lyme is diagnosed right away, if at all. For this reason, it’s important to inspect your skin after being outdoors in wooden areas where ticks are common. Wear light-colored clothing that provides an easy contrast for the dark insects. And call your doctor if you develop a rash or feel sick after being in an area that’s known for ticks.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 96 percent of reported Lyme disease cases occur in the Northeast and upper Midwest regions of the United States. If you live in one of these regions, you may be at increased risk for infection.

Early Symptoms

lyme_disease_rash

Perhaps the most well-known symptom of Lyme disease is a rash that looks like a bullseye. Scientifically named erythema migrans, this type of rash occurs in 70-80 percent of people infected by a tick bite. The area directly around the tick bite may be red and raised and look like a normal bug bite. The rash often spreads in a circular pattern that’s lighter in the center and darker on the outer ring. However, not everyone who gets Lyme disease gets the target-shaped rash.

Muscle aches, headache, fatigue, and fever are classic signs of early Lyme disease. Symptoms can start at any time between three and 30 days after infection. The incubation period can also lead to confusion about your symptoms. If you don’t remember being bitten, you may think you have the flu and won’t necessarily connect the tick bite and your symptoms.

Advanced Symptoms

Some people with Lyme disease experience other, more advanced symptoms of the illness. Joint pain, especially in the knees, and a stiff neck may occur in the early-symptom stage or several months after your tick bite. Severe headaches and shooting pain in your body may keep you up at night. Dizziness and changes in your heart rate or rhythm are also advanced symptoms of Lyme disease.

Lyme disease that isn’t treated for several months can lead to more serious problems, including those that affect the nervous system. Bell’s palsy, the loss of muscle function in your face, is a neurological complication of Lyme disease. People with Bell’s palsy sometimes look like they’ve had a stroke because they can’t move the muscles on one side of their face. Movement problems, especially in the arms and legs, can also occur.

Heart problems and inflammation of the eyes and liver are rare. However, they are possible in late-stage Lyme disease.

Non-Chronic Treatment

Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics. The earlier you’re treated, the better your chances for recovery. Most people who are diagnosed in the early stages take an oral medication for between two and three weeks. People, who have more severe symptoms, including neurological impairment, may require intravenous antibiotics. Treatment for advanced Lyme disease may run for several weeks to a month or more.

Chronic Symptoms

Some people suffer from chronic symptoms of Lyme disease even after treatment. Although the bacteria have been eliminated from the body, effects may linger. Called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), the immune system still fights to clear the infection even after it’s gone. Symptoms can include joint pain and swelling (reactive arthritis), extreme fatigue, and short-term memory problems. Your doctor may suggest changes in your diet, sleep routines, and counseling to help cope with these issues.

Outlook

Though advanced Lyme disease may take longer to treat, most people are able to recover completely.

Lyme disease can have serious effects on your health, especially if it’s diagnosed late. Although the symptoms may be hard to differentiate from other illnesses, learning about the symptoms of Lyme disease can help you stay healthy. Be aware of the insects around you and do spot checks for ticks on a regular basis. If you feel that something isn’t right with your health, call your doctor.

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