How to Tell If You Have Lyme Disease

A boy races his bike ahead of his mom on the trail
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In the mid 1970s, doctors in and around Lyme, Connecticut, noticed an oddity: An outbreak of swollen knees and other joint problems, especially among young people.

Eventually, they identified a peculiar culprit — a bacteria carried by a tick. The disease, which took its name from that Connecticut city, was soon being effectively treated by antibiotics.

But effective treatment means little if the disease isn’t identified in the first place. The joint problems experienced by those children in Lyme are just some of the long-term problems caused by untreated Lyme disease. It can also cause serious problems with the heart, joints, nervous system and memory. So before you enjoy the outdoors, take a moment to review the symptoms of Lyme disease.

How to Prevent Lyme Disease

As with any infection, prevention is the best place to start. These prevention tips are from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Know Where to Expect Ticks. Ticks live in grass, brush and trees, though many people get Lyme disease from ticks in their own yards.
  • Treat Your Clothes and Gear. Use products containing 0.5% permethrin. It’s a chemical that can protect you from ticks over several washings.
  • Use Insect Repellent. Specifically one containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD) or 2-undecanone.
  • Walk in the Center of Trails

After you spend time outdoors, check your skin, your clothes and your pets for ticks. It also helps to take a shower within a few hours of coming inside. Keep in mind that ticks like to hide in the following areas:

  • Around the Waist
  • Back of the Knees
  • Between the Legs
  • In and Around the Ears
  • In and Around the Hair
  • Inside Belly Button
  • Under the Arms

Even if you’re bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, it has to stick to you for at least 24 hours to transmit the disease. Taking these precautions is a good first step, but it’s also important to be ready for signs of the illness.

What to Look For

If you become ill within a few weeks of a known tick bite, see your health care provider right away. And even when you aren’t sure if you’ve been bitten by a tick — but have the symptoms of Lyme disease and have been in the great outdoors — you should check in with your doctor.

Immature deer ticks cause most infections; They’re very tiny, and many people are bitten without being aware of it.

Some of the first symptoms of Lyme disease include:

  • Bullseye-Shaped Rash Appearing Within a Few Days or Up to a Month After the Bite (Rash May Feel Warm, But Is Rarely Itchy or Painful)
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle and Joint Pain
  • Swollen Lymph Nodes

A brief note about the rash: Although it’s strongly identified with Lyme disease, between 20 percent and 30 percent of people with Lyme disease don’t get the rash at all. So if you have other symptoms but don’t have the rash, you should still get checked out.

If Lyme disease is caught and treated early, the infection usually goes away quickly without long-term problems. That’s why it’s important to see your health care provider promptly if you have Lyme disease symptoms, even if you haven’t seen a tick bite you.

How Is Lyme Disease Diagnosed?

A blood test can be used to determine whether someone is infected with Lyme disease. But it isn’t accurate until several weeks have passed after infection.

Your doctor may not wait for test results to treat you with antibiotics for Lyme disease. If you have symptoms of the disease and are in an area with ticks that carry it, it usually makes sense to begin treatment without waiting.

Two weeks of antibiotics are typically enough to cure Lyme disease. In a small number of people, some symptoms continue even after treatment. This is called “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome,” and doctors don’t fully understand what causes it. More antibiotics don’t help.

But the more serious consequences of Lyme disease come from a lack of treatment. It’s important to work with your health care provider if you think you may be infected. He or she is your best ally to diagnose and treat it promptly.

We believe spending time outdoors, whether you’re hiking in the woods or having a picnic with family and friends, is great for your health. Knowing how to prevent and recognize Lyme disease means you don’t have to worry about ticks spoiling your fun.

To learn more about how we keep your whole-person health in mind, please click here.

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