What is Lyme disease?
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 get treatment. Many people with Lyme disease don’t know they have it until their symptoms are advanced. Knowing the signs and symptoms will help you get treatment as early as possible.
Why is Lyme disease so hard to diagnose?
Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose for a number of reasons. First, people don’t always know that a tick has bitten them. They may not seek medical treatment until they develop symptoms. What’s more, many symptoms of Lyme disease mimic signs of other illnesses, including the flu. Also, the ticks that spread Lyme disease can be small and difficult to spot, even when they’re engorged, or full with your blood.
Next, the blood tests used to diagnose Lyme disease may not always detect a positive case. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a two-step process for testing blood. The tests look for antibodies that form when the body is trying to fight off Lyme disease. The first step is to perform an EIA, or enzyme immunoassay. If this test is positive or indeterminate, doctors will run a second test, called a Western blot, on the blood sample. A person is diagnosed with Lyme disease only if the EIA and Western blot test are both positive.
The accuracy of these tests varies depending on the disease stage at which a person is tested. In the few weeks immediately following infection, the tests are expected to be negative. At this stage a person may have developed a rash and fever but no other symptoms. The best time to test for Lyme disease is several weeks after infection occurs. This is when the tests are most accurate.
An infected person may also test negative if they take antibiotics immediately after being bitten by a tick. In this case the person may not develop antibodies against Lyme disease, or may develop antibodies at levels too low to be detected by the tests.
Not everyone who has Lyme disease is diagnosed right away, if at all. For this reason, it’s important to inspect your skin after being outdoors in wooded areas where ticks are common. Wear light-colored clothing that provides an easy contrast for the dark insects. Call your doctor if you develop a rash or feel sick after being in an area that’s known for ticks.
The CDC reports that 96 percent of 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.
Perhaps the most well-known symptom of Lyme disease is a rash that looks like a bull’s-eye. The scientific name for this rash is erythema migrans. It 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.
Classic signs of early Lyme disease include:
- muscle aches
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 you may not connect the tick bite and your 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 but possible in late-stage Lyme disease.
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.
Some people experience chronic symptoms of Lyme disease even after several weeks of antibiotic treatment. Although the bacteria have been eliminated from the body, the symptoms of Lyme disease may linger. This can include:
- short-term memory problems
- joint or muscle aches
This long-lasting type of Lyme disease is called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS).
The CDC has only recently recognized PTLDS as a condition. This is because doctors don’t fully understand why chronic Lyme disease occurs. Medical experts think that chronic Lyme disease occurs when Lyme disease severely damages a person’s body tissues and immune system. This may cause symptoms to continue after the disease has been cleared from their body.
Similar post-disease symptoms can occur after other kinds of conditions caused by bacterial infections, including Guillain-Barre syndrome and Reiter’s syndrome. There is a controversy, however, over PTLDS. Some doctors believe that chronic Lyme disease symptoms are caused by a persistent Lyme disease infection. Others think they’re caused by damage to the body during infection. Because the tests used to check for Lyme disease are still evolving, it’s not known which group is correct.
According to the CDC, the best treatment plans for people with PTLDS are similar to those used to treat patients with fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. This may include taking medications for pain and fatigue, talk therapy, and stress-reduction techniques such as deep breathing or yoga.
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.