As temperatures rise, many of us head outdoors for a much-needed dose of nature and adventure. Common hiking and camping supplies often include water, non-perishable food items, a compass, a cell phone and a first aid kit. But preparation for one common danger still often goes unmentioned: ticks and their risk of Lyme disease.
Over 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are diagnosed each year, making it the most common arthropod (tick, flea and mosquito) borne illness in the United States. Certain species of ticks (mostly deer ticks or blacklegged ticks) carry the disease from one host to another — usually deer or rodents. However, ticks can also attach to humans. When a tick latches on to your skin to feed, it can carry bacteria to you causing an infection: Lyme disease.
So before you lace up your hiking boots, learn more about Lyme disease to protect yourself and your family.
How Lyme Disease Is Transmitted
A bite from an infected tick can trigger the spread of Lyme disease. In most cases, the tick must be attached to your body for at least 36 to 48 hours before it can pass on the illness — which makes early detection and removal key to preventing an infection.
But since ticks tend to be very small (usually less than 2mm in size), they can tuck themselves away into any nook on your body. Hard-to-reach places like your armpit, scalp, neck, back of the knee and groin often harbor these dangerous little fugitives without your knowledge.
Ticks thrive in the northeast and upper Midwest parts of the U.S., primarily due to the fact that the deer and rodent populations, their target host species, tend to be much larger.
Ticks usually live in places with the following features:
- Areas with high deer or rodent populations
- Grassy areas or fields
- Heavily wooded areas
- Moist and humid environments
Avoiding these types of areas and carefully checking your skin each day can help lower your risk of infection.
Common Lyme Disease Symptoms
Once the bacteria has been in your bloodstream for an extended amount of time, you can begin developing early symptoms of the disease. Signs of infection usually appear within 7–14 days of the bite, but in some cases may take months to surface.
An estimated 80–90% of Lyme disease cases begin with a rash that appears near the location of the bite and then spreads (normally covering an area of about 5 inches and spreading to an area as large as 2 feet or more if left untreated). People often describe it as warm to the touch and resembling a bullseye.
More serious symptoms often begin to appear just after the rash, including:
- Extreme fatigue
- Facial palsy (drooping or paralysis of the face)
- Heart palpitations or other cardiac irregularities
- Joint pain or swelling
- Neck ache or stiffness
- Neurological issues, such as short-term memory loss, confusion and disorientation
- Severe headaches
- Tingling, pain or numbness in limbs and extremities
If you suspect an infection, seek out care from a physician immediately. Early treatment can prevent these symptoms from causing lasting damage.
Get Lyme Disease Diagnosed Early
A patient’s symptoms are usually what point doctors to a possible Lyme disease diagnosis. Once Lyme disease is suspected, physicians will rely on blood work for a diagnosis. An enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test will be used to detect antibodies to the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium. If this test comes back positive or inconclusive, then doctors perform a Western Blot test, which provides a more detailed examination of the antibodies.
Know Where to Go for Lyme Disease Treatment
Treatment for Lyme disease depends heavily on how early the condition is diagnosed. If caught early (within the first month of infection), a 2–3 week course of antibiotics can often cure the disease completely.
However, treatment for later stages of the infection (a condition known as post-Lyme disease syndrome) can require longer treatment periods of oral and intravenous (IV) medications. Even with these prescriptions, symptoms and side effects of the illness can last for months or even years without full resolution.
Focus on Prevention and Early Detection
Taking steps to avoid a tick bite — such as wearing long pants and sleeves while walking in heavily wooded areas or in patches of long grass — can greatly reduce your chances of contracting Lyme disease. Early detection and treatment is also key, and can prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of your body. If you live in areas heavily populated with deer or rodents, or spend lots of time outdoors, check your skin daily for signs of ticks.
If believe you have Lyme disease or experience any of its symptoms, don’t hesitate to reach out to a physician for guidance. For more severe symptoms, you might also consider reaching out to a local urgent care clinic or going to the nearest emergency room.