Lyme disease is a huge topic and it’s going to take several posts. This post covers a brief history of Lyme disease, Lyme disease basics, and steps you can take to limit your chances of contracting it.
I don’t have Lyme disease, but I know people who do. Contracting Lyme disease is a life changing experience, and not in a good way. I’m immunosuppressed and I don’t know how my body would sort out Lyme. Summer is peak season for Lyme. It’s a necessity for me to arm myself with information about this debilitating disease, and I don’t mind saying, I’m afraid.
In the 1970s, a mysterious illness was discovered among children living around the town of Lyme, Connecticut. Their illness was first diagnosed as juvenile arthritis, which was incorrect. As more cases occurred, the bacterium, Borrelia Burgdorferi, which is transmitted by ticks, was finally discovered. The disease became known as Lyme disease and is one of the many misunderstood illnesses of our time.
Lyme disease research is vastly underfunded by The United States government when compared to other infectious diseases. This means that many medical professionals will be under-educated as Lyme disease continues to be unrecognized, undiagnosed, and untreated. Meanwhile the disease continues to wreak havoc on the infected patient.
The Lyme disease crisis is becoming too big to be ignored and the government will have to start paying attention. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme Disease across the US. These numbers have been on the rise since first being tracked in 1982. Along with the number of cases increasing, the geographic spread of the illness has also been expanding.
Other Lyme disease experts believe about 2.8 million have been diagnosed and an astounding 1.55 million are suffering lingering effects from the disease. This complication is known as chronic Lyme disease or Post-Treatment Lyme disease Syndrome, according to Dorothy Kupcha Leland, vice president for education and outreach for LymeDisease.org.
How is Lyme disease contracted?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection most commonly transmitted by ticks. It’s becoming more widely accepted that ticks are not the only carriers. This disease can also be spread by fleas, mosquitoes, and mites; basically any insect that feeds on an infected host and then passes it on to another host.
Getting a diagnosis is difficult because this bacterium has symptoms that mimic other diseases. The two Lyme tests available are inconsistent, giving some patients a false negative and sending them home with no treatment. Not being able to get an accurate diagnosis means that people can go untreated for Lyme disease for years, all while the disease gets worse. There is no vaccine to protect humans from Lyme, even though my dog Jack has been vaccinated against the disease. I asked our vet if she could just give me the dog vaccine, but she said no. Bummer.
Because the symptoms of Lyme disease are so varied, combined with inaccurate testing, making an accurate diagnosis is a complex process that can take years. You might be treated for Lyme before a diagnosis is even made. According to the CDC, symptoms of Lyme disease can include any of the following:
The symptoms you might experience depend on the stage of infection or disease. You may notice immediate symptoms within days or weeks, such as the infamous bull’s-eye rash, which you may or may not get, or your symptoms may not surface for months or years. Sound confusing? Lyme is the ultimate enigma.
WebMD categorizes symptoms based on three stages. In the first stage, you may or may not have a rash, you may feel lethargic or have a headache or stiff neck; or you may notice no symptoms.
As the infection progresses to the second stage, memory problems, pain, and weakness in the arms and legs may surface.
In the third stage you may notice swelling and arthritis-like pain in the joints, inability to control facial muscles, and numbness and tingling in your hands, feet or back. These are just a few of the symptoms that can surface with Lyme disease.
Protecting yourself from infection
Protection from bites is the key to preventing a Lyme disease infection. Your best bet against this disease is to not be bitten in the first place.
Here are suggestions from the CDC on outdoor protection:
- Avoid walking through wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.
- Walk in the center of trails.
- Wear closed toe shoes, not sandals
- Wear socks and tuck your pants into your socks
- Wear light colored clothing so you can easily spot ticks, they can be as small as a poppy seed
- Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors to more easily find ticks
- Use repellent that contains 20 percent or more DEET, picaridin on exposed skin for protection that lasts several hours.
- Always follow product instructions. Parents should apply this product to their children, avoiding hands, eyes, and mouth.
- Use products that contain permethrin on clothing. Treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents with products containing 0.5% permethrin. It remains protective through several washings. Pre-treated clothing is available and may be protective longer.
There are two great online tools to help you choose the best protection:
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has this great online tool to help you select the repellent that is best for you and your family.
Consumer Reports has a Ratings report to help you identify which products work best against Aedes mosquitoes as well as against Culex mosquitoes and ticks. This rating also reports on some natural based products so you can stack them up against the chemicals. I’m not crazy about using DEET on my clothes, but I have to weigh it against the possibility of getting Lyme.
After spending any time outdoors, run through this checklist to minimize the risk of a bite and/or infection:
- Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body upon return from tick-infested areas. Parents should check their children for ticks under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and especially in their hair.
- Examine gear and pets. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later, so carefully examine pets, coats, and day packs.
- Tumble dry clothes in a dryer on high heat fo to kill ticks on dry clothing after you come indoors.
- If the clothes are damp, put in the dryer on high until totally dry.
- If the clothes require washing first, hot water is recommended. Cold and medium temperature water will not kill ticks effectively. If the clothes cannot be washed in hot water, tumble dry on low heat for 90 minutes or high heat for 60 minutes. The clothes should be warm and completely dry.
How to remove a tick
If a tick does attach, according to the CDC, it takes 36 hours for the transmission of Lyme disease to occur, so a swift and total removal of the beast is critical to lessen the likelihood that you’ll contract the disease.
If you have the unfortunate experience of being bitten by a tick, be sure you pull it out from the very base of the head using tweezers. Pull straight up and make sure you remove the entire body of the bug. If you can, put the tick in a closed container or baggie with a damp cotton ball to take to your doctor. Of course, not every tick will be a carrier, but you want to be on the safe side.
Step 1: Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the base of the tiny head as possible. The goal is to remove the entire tick including its head.
Step 2: Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Do not twist or jerk the tick.
Step 3: Clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
What to do if you get bitten
If I get bitten, I’m going immediately to an urgent care center or call my doctor. Remember that the symptoms you experience (or don’t experience) may not be an indicator that you do or don’t have Lyme disease.
If you do develop the illness, antibiotics may be recommended as the first course of treatment. Some people may experience symptoms for an extended period of time, despite treatment and develop a condition called “Chronic Lyme Disease” or post-treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome. Treating Lyme at this stage can get very complicated because there is no protocol, as of yet, in the medical field.
Since the symptoms of Lyme disease victims can last despite immediate and vigilant treatment, many people never fully recover. My theory is this can be attributed to lack of research funding. This insidious disease can lay dormant inside the body for years until something – such as stress or other factors – ticks it off and triggers a resurgence of symptoms.
If you want to get even more frightened, angry, or both, there is a documentary called “Under Our Skin,” which, “exposes the hidden epidemic of Lyme disease and reveals how our corrupt health care system is failing on of the most serious illnesses of our time.” You can rent it on Amazon.
I’m hoping to keep my risk of contracting Lyme disease as low as possible by taking steps to protect myself from getting bitten.
Here’s hoping we all have safe and bite-less summer.
All the Best,