Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose, but it has the potential to have lasting health effects – and it’s a growing problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lyme disease is a disease caused by bacteria transmitted to humans through the bites of certain species of ticks, including deer ticks or blacklegged ticks in the United States ( Ixodes scapularis).
Researchers are studying the growing spread of Lyme disease, which was traditionally a problem concentrated in the forested region of the northeastern United States. Recent news and studies, however, show Lyme disease is becoming a regional problem in the Midwest and in many other states, such as California, where ticks carrying the disease have been found near beaches. Stanford Health Care emergency physician and wild medicine expert Dr James Marvel is currently studying the factors that are contributing to the spread of Lyme disease in the United States. He says that looking at data from the United States over the past several decades, Lyme disease has “flourished” in a number of states and counties, particularly in the northeastern United States.
“It is suspected that climate variables are contributing to this, especially in the context of global warming,” Marvel said, adding that the environment could be more favorable for ticks. However, ticks have a two-year life cycle, he says, which makes tracking difficult. “It’s not as simple as saying ‘a hot day means there are going to be more ticks’,” he explains.
Other factors, such as people spreading construction in wooded and tick-filled environments, may also contribute to an increase in Lyme, Marvel says. Dr Andres Bran, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Missouri Health Care, says the pandemic may have driven more people outside and caused them to engage in activities that would expose them to bites ticks, such as hiking.
“You see a shift towards going out in order to be socially aloof,” Bran says.
If caught early enough, Lyme disease can be easily treated, but not receiving proper diagnosis and treatment on time can lead to long-lasting illness. To better understand Lyme disease and how to stay safe outside, we spoke to Bran and Marvel about best practices, including how to protect yourself, what to do if you find a tick, and more.
Tick protection 101
Being outdoors increases the risk of coming into contact with all nature walks, including ticks. But if you live in a wooded area or are out into nature a lot, and especially if you live in a state where Lyme disease is present, it is important to protect yourself from tick bites.
“Ticks don’t fly or jump like fleas or anything,” Marvel says. “The only way for them to reach a human is through direct contact.” They do this by waiting at the edge of a blade of grass, a large reed, or something similar, he says, then hooking up when something brushes against them.
Tick exposure can happen at any time, but ticks are most active in the spring and summer, or April through September, according to the CDC. To check yourself for ticks at the end of a day spent outdoors, the CDC recommends paying special attention to these places on your body: under your arms, your ears, your belly button, between your legs. , your hair, your waist and the backs of your knees. You should also inspect your pets and equipment, as ticks can enter your home by climbing on a pet, backpack or clothing, according to the CDC.
To stay out of reach of ticks, avoid areas of tall grass or brush, stay in the center of trails, and wear clothing that covers your skin as much as possible. You can also treat your clothes with permethrin, an insecticide, or use insect repellant. Bran says to apply the repellant every 4-6 hours and find one that has a 30-35% DEET concentration. Sprays with a lower concentration of DEET work, he says, but not as well. Bran also advises against sunscreen / insect repellant mixtures as they are not as effective.
“You have to apply your sunscreen before the repellant, then use whatever product is available as a repellant,” he says.
What to do if you find a tick
Depending on the region, from less than 1% to more than 50% of ticks carry Lyme disease, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. If you find a tick on your body, you need to remove it.
Marvel says the best way to remove a tick is to use tweezers and “grab the tick” as close as possible to the base, which is close to the tick’s head, then “pull firmly towards it. ‘exterior with soft traction’.
“People can keep the tick if they want, just to help with identification and see if it’s a species that can transmit Lyme disease,” says Marvel. “But routine tick tests for bacteria are not recommended to guide treatment.”
Marvel and Bran both say to contact your doctor if you find a tick and live in an area where Lyme disease is present. Bran says if the tick bite occurred within 72 hours of finding it and starting treatment, the infection can be prevented.
How long does an infected tick have to be attached to transmit Lyme disease? Since many people may not know they’ve been bitten until they develop symptoms, this may be irrelevant. But with careful tick checking, time can be on your side. Bran says the “magic number” of time ticks must be attached to cause infection is 36 to 48 hours.
“Anything less than 36 hours, we consider it to be low risk,” Bran says. “Not impossible, but very unlikely.”
Symptoms of Lyme disease
When infected with a tick carrying Lyme, people experience flu-like and nonspecific symptoms, including headache, muscle pain, fatigue, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and muscle pain. , explains Bran. Many patients – up to 80%, according to the CDC – will develop a rash about three to 30 days after a bite from an infected tick. The rash of erythema migrans associated with Lyme disease is most commonly known to look like a “bull’s eye,” with an infected red circle that fades away as it spreads, but l The rash can take many forms, according to the CDC’s advice on Lyme Rash Disease.
“It’s important to keep in mind that not all patients have the characteristic rash,” Bran said. If you have the rash, however, this is considered a home run diagnosis, he says, and a dose of the antibiotic Doxycycline is used to treat the condition. “If you have the rash, you don’t need expensive tests,” Bran added. “You need Doxycycline.”
Tests may be needed to determine whether or not a person has Lyme, including a blood test that detects antibodies to Lyme disease. The problem with this, Marvel says, is that antibodies can take a while to show up in a blood test, which can also contribute to the underreporting of Lyme disease cases.
“It can be tricky in acute cases because it relies on antibodies in the blood,” says Marvel. “And in the acute context of this infection, in the first few days or weeks, you haven’t generated any antibodies yet.”
“Lyme disease as a whole is a tricky diagnosis,” Marvel added. The CDC reported nearly 35,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in 2019. Research indicates that the actual number of Lyme disease cases in the United States is likely 10 times higher, according to Marvel.
“I think it gets trickier the further you get away from the original tick bite or potential exposure,” Marvel says.
If it goes undiagnosed, Lyme disease has consequences. “The presentation of acute Lyme disease matches the flu-like symptoms, but if left untreated it can progress and some of the complications would be Lyme encephalitis where it could actually affect the brain,” says Marvel. Inflammation of the joints and heart and facial paralysis are other symptoms of a longer and more severe acute infection, he says.
Long-term Lyme disease
According to the CDC, most cases of Lyme disease can be cured in two to four weeks with antibiotics. Some people, however, may develop what the CDC calls “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome” and experience pain, fatigue, or difficulty thinking for more than six months. The CDC says some experts believe the bacteria that causes Lyme disease may trigger an autoimmune response, leading to symptoms that “last long after the infection itself is gone.”
Chronic Lyme disease may be synonymous with PTLDS in terms of symptoms, but according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “the lack of a clearly defined clinical definition” of MPC has led many experts in the domain to completely avoid using this name. . But that doesn’t mean that the experiences of people living with symptoms after Lyme disease aren’t real – in a 2013 study, 36% of patients diagnosed with Lyme at an early stage developed symptoms of PTLDS.
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute health or medical advice. Always consult a doctor or other qualified healthcare professional with any questions you may have about a health problem or health goals.