5 Facts About Lyme Disease
Michael F. Parry, MD, Chair of Infectious Diseases
How did Lyme disease come to be? The disease was first recognized in 1975 because of a group of children with fever and arthritis in the small community of Lyme, Connecticut. In due course, research uncovered that these cases were linked due to an infection with a newly discovered bacteria, a species of Borrelia, the only pathogen that causes Lyme Disease in the United States.
As many of us know, Lyme disease is an infection transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick, known as Ixodes. Many of us may not be aware, however, of the following:
1. The tick bite is painless and often goes unnoticed. The bacteria are injected into the human host after the tick has been attached and feeding for 24-48 hours. Symptoms begin 7-21 days after the bite, and typically include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans or the infamous "bullseye." If left untreated, the rash will resolve and the fever will gradually disappear, but infection can later spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system. So it’s important to see your doctor for evaluation and possible treatment if you have these or any unexplained symptoms after a tick bite.
2. Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings (e.g., rash), and the possibility of exposure an environment where infected ticks live. Laboratory testing is helpful if used correctly and performed by a reliable facility. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with 2-4 weeks of antibiotics.
3. The chances that you might get Lyme disease from a single tick bite depend on the type of tick, where you acquired it, and how long it was attached to you. Many types of ticks bite people in the U.S., but only blacklegged ticks transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. Furthermore, only blacklegged ticks in the highly prevalent areas of the northeastern and north central U.S. are commonly infected. Even if a tick is infected, it may not transmit Lyme disease. The tick needs to be attached for at least 24 hours before transmission will occur. This is why it's so important to remove them promptly and to check your body daily for ticks if you are outdoors and live in an area prone to ticks.
4. The ticks that transmit Lyme disease can occasionally transmit other infections as well. Anaplasma (an infection of white blood cells) and Babesia (an infection of red blood cells) are two of these, commonly found in our area, but are seen less frequently than Lyme disease. Both these infections produce fever and fatigue like Lyme disease, but not rash or arthritis.
5. Reducing exposure to ticks is the best defense against Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections. Steps to prevent infections from tick bites include:
- Using insect repellent
- Removing ticks promptly with fine-tipped tweezers
- Applying pesticides to lawns and other high-risk areas
- Reducing favorable tick habitat around the home (reduction or avoidance of wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter).
- Walking in the center of hiking trails and wearing clothing to make tick detection easier.
Remember, always do a “tick check” and take a prompt shower after spending time in areas where ticks are likely to be found. While it is a good idea to take preventive measures against ticks year-round, be extra vigilant in warmer months (April-September) when ticks are most active.