Lyme disease is an infection caused by bacteria belonging to the Borrelia family. The disease is transmitted by the bite of an infected black-legged tick, known as a deer tick. The tick becomes infected after feeding on infected deer or mice.
A tick needs to be present on the skin for 24 to 48 hours to transmit the infection. Most people with Lyme disease have no memory of a tick bite.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Backention (CDC), it is the most common disease spread by ticks in the northern hemisphere. It affects about 300,000 people a year in the United States and 65,000 people a year in Europe.
The disease is more common in areas that are grassy and heavily wooded than the flat plains. In the U.S., it is concentrated heavily in the northeast and upper Midwest regions of the country.
The signs and symptoms of this infectious disease vary and usually appear in three different stages – early localized, early disseminated and late disseminated.
In this first stage, symptoms generally appear in a localized area about one to two weeks after the tick bite. The most common sign is a “bull’s-eye” rash, which indicates that bacteria are multiplying in the bloodstream.
The erythema migrans rash is present at the site of the tick bite, with a characteristic red spot at the center surrounded by a clear area with redness at the outer edge. The rash is not painful and does not even cause itching but may feel warm to the touch.
This stage occurs several weeks after the tick bite. As the bacteria begin to spread throughout the body, rashes may appear in areas other than the site of the bite. You may experience flu-like symptoms, such as chills, fever, sore throat, fatigue, muscle pain and a headache.
Other signs include enlarged lymph nodes and vision changes.
Neurological signs like numbness, tingling and Bell’s palsy (facial drooping) can also occur.
If the infection is not properly treated in the first two stages, Lyme disease enters the third stage. At this point, you may experience symptoms including severe headaches, joint pain, numbness in different body parts, mental fogginess, disturbances in heart rhythm, short-term memory loss, mood changes and sleep problems.
One of the best ways to prevent getting exposed to the bacteria that causes Lyme disease is to avoid areas where deer ticks live.
Areas where there is a high concentration of ticks include wooded, bushy areas with long grass. Avoid these places as well as areas littered with leaf debris, especially during the spring and summer months.
Particularly in the north central and northeastern regions of the U.S., try to plan hikes or other outdoor activities carefully during the spring and summer months. If going for a hiking trip, stick to trails and avoid walking through low bushes and long grass.
Dogs can also pick up the ticks, so keep your dog on a leash.
Wearing shorts and T-shirts may look like a comfortable option, especially during the summer season and on hiking trips. But if you live in a deer-tick infested area, you need to wear clothes more sensibly.
When in wooded or grassy areas, cover up as much of your skin as possible. It’s best to wear shoes, long pants tucked into your socks, a long-sleeved shirt, a hat and gloves to keep ticks from biting you. Make sure the clothes you choose are tight at the waist, wrists, ankles and neck.
Also, choose clothes in light shades. This is important as light-colored clothing will help you spot insects and ticks more easily.
Insect repellents are effective at protecting you from insects, including deer ticks.
When you need to go out, especially in woody or bushy areas, apply insect repellent on your skin. Parents should apply repellant on their children, avoiding their hands, eyes and mouth. However, insect repellants are not recommended for children under age 3.
As chemical repellents can be toxic, you can try natural repellants. For instance, oil of lemon eucalyptus gives the same protection as any commercial product. You can spray this oil diluted with carrier oil on your skin as well as your clothing.
An important preventive measure is taking steps to discourage deer ticks from coming into your yard, where you probably spend the most of your time outdoors. To do so, keep your yard as clean as possible.
Get rid of potential tick habitats like piles of dead leaves by using them to make compost, burning them or throwing them in the trash (if that is allowed in your city).
Cut downlong grasses and keep the bushes trimmed. Also, keep wood piles in sunny areas.
If you do not have the time or energy to keep your yard clean, ask for help from friends or neighbors. Even hire a professional, if necessary.
Those living in infection-prone areas should remain vigilant in order to prevent getting Lyme disease.
Always check yourself, your children and your pets for ticks, especially after spending time in wooded or grassy areas. As deer ticks are very small, you must search really carefully to find them.
Ticks like to hide in hair, so check your scalp too!
Whenever you go outside for a hike or go camping during the summer months, always take a shower when you get home.
Ticks often remain on your skin for hours before attaching themselves. Thus, showering with warm water can help wash away unattached ticks.
Also, tumble dry your hiking clothes on high heat for one hour to kill any ticks that may be hiding in the folds of your clothes.
If you find one, remove the tick as soon as possible with tweezers. Gently grasp the tick near its head or mouth and pull upward with steady, even pressure. Avoid squeezing or crushing the tick, which may cause parts of the tick’s mouth to remain in your skin.
Once removed, you must dispose it of properly and then apply some antiseptic cream to the area. Also, continue to monitor the bite site for signs of a rash and see your doctor immediately if a rash develops.
Lyme disease is best treated in the early stages. Early treatment is a simple 14- to 21-day course of oral antibiotics.
Oral antibiotics, such as doxycycline, amoxicillin or cefuroxime axetil, are the most common treatment for the condition.
Persistent or chronic Lyme disease is treated with intravenous antibiotics. Although the antibiotics may be given for a period of 14 to 21 days, symptom improvement may occur more slowly.
According to the CDC, 10 to 20 percent of patients may have recurring symptoms even after following appropriate antibiotic treatment.
Recovery is quicker and more complete the sooner treatment begins.
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