Have you experienced sudden rashes, fatigue, fever, aching joints, or swollen lymph nodes? While these symptoms could lead to a variety of causes, it may also mean something more serious, like Lyme disease. While each person reacts differently to the Lyme bacteria (in terms of symptoms and severity), this is multi-system disease and should be addressed by a medical professional as soon as possible. So, how do you contract Lyme disease, what should you look out for, and how can you prevent it? Keep reading to learn more about Lyme disease and how you can become more aware!
Where does Lyme Disease Come From?
Lyme disease is a global health concern. It is an infectious disease spread by a tick, which can be found on every continent except Antarctica. There are several different types of ticks all over the world, causing a variety of infections including Lyme. Ticks can become infected with Lyme disease when they feed on an infected animal. Deer may be the first species to come to mind, but mice, birds, rabbits, rodents, squirrels and other animals can also be carriers. The bacterium, Borrelia, that causes Lyme disease, can be part of these animals’ normal gut microbiome, but not humans. Ticks can carry several types of infections at the same time and may carry different species of borrelia. Borrelia is a spirochete, a cork-screw shaped bacterium with flagella. These spirochetes live in the gut of the tick. Most lab tests are only looking for one particular species, called Borrelia Burgdorferi, which is one of the reasons it can take a while for people to receive a diagnosis.
How Do You Get Infected?
Ticks are commonly found in tall grassy areas, back yards, under leaves, hiking trails, campgrounds and in the park. Ticks hitch a ride on a piece of your clothing and then search for skin. Once they settle on a spot, they burrow their mouths into and under the skin. Ticks have a special ingredient in their saliva that acts like an anesthetic agent, making their bite undetectable. After a tick attaches itself, it begins to draw blood into its body. Once there is enough blood, the tick has the ability to regurgitate the liquid portion of the meal and save the more solid component. It may take more than 24 hours for this process to occur, so it is important to do frequent tick checks and remove any ticks as soon as possible. Labs that can test ticks to see if they carry infections, as not all ticks are infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme. We recommend sending any attached ticks for testing. One resource is UMass Amherst, and additional resources can be found here.
What to Look Out For
Many people who develop Lyme disease never find a tick on their body, especially since ticks in the nymph stage are very tiny, about the size of a poppy seed. Some but not all people develop a “Bulls Eye” rash called Erythema Migrans, an early sign of Lyme disease. This classic rash is associated with a stage called Early Localized Stage. This can occur within days to a few weeks. Some people can also develop a fever and flu-like symptoms during this stage, and treatment with appropriate antibiotics early on offers the best chance to kill the bacteria at this localized area before they multiply and spread.
If the tick goes unnoticed or there are no obvious symptoms of illness, and therefore no treatment, the spirochetes can multiply and further invade the body traveling through the bloodstream. This is called the Early Disseminated Stage, which can occur over weeks to months. The multiplying Borrelia infection can move freely throughout the body burrowing into organs and tissue, including the brain, heart, musculoskeletal and nervous system. This burrowing can lead to a multitude of symptoms including persistent extreme fatigue, memory issues, heart palpitations and pain. Symptoms can be different from one person to another. For this reason, Lyme has been called the Great Impersonator.
As time goes on without a correct diagnosis, which is common due to the fact that testing can be inaccurate, patients may progress onto the Late Disseminated Stage. Patients have been known to develop symptoms similar to Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s and ALS, (Lou Gehrig’s disease). It is important to be your own advocate when concerned about your symptoms and if they relate to Lyme disease. Lyme disease should be treated based on clinical symptoms and not solely on lab findings. If you have a negative Lyme test and there is no explanation for your symptoms, then find a practitioner to do further lab testing with Vibrant Lab, IGeneX or Medical Diagnostic Lab.
How Do You Prevent Lyme Disease?
The best was to prevent Lyme disease and co-infections is awareness. Frequent tick checks on ourselves and our pets will help prevent exposure. Using a safe tick repellent and repellent infused clothing can also offers some additional protection. Put your clothes into the dryer when coming back into the house and place the dryer on high for 10 minutes. This heat will kill any ticks that could have been on your clothing. Make sure you inspect children’s full head, ears, underarms, umbilicus, (they love to hide in there), groin and between the toes. Here are instructions to remove a tick.
Spending time in nature provides a spectacular experience, one that should not be avoided. With a few basic precautions, you can avoid getting infected with Lyme disease. Simple steps can help everyone stay safe and enjoy the great outdoors.
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