Growing up we were taught to be especially careful when outdoors in high-grass areas because of the threat of ticks. Specifically, we were warned to the possibility that a tick could give us Lyme Disease. We could expect aches and pains and the tell-tale target looking rash. After a few weeks of medication, things would go back to normal. While all of this is true, it is only partially true. We were undersold on how difficult detection of Lyme Disease could be and how extensive the damage to our bodies would be if left undetected and not properly treated.
With warm weather now on the way, more people will be spending time outdoors. This is why summer months have the most reported cases of Lyme out of the whole year. While this might be the “busy” season, Lyme Disease can be contracted at any point in time.
Lyme Disease is caused by four different kinds of bacteria: Borrelia burgdorferi and Borrelia mayonii in the US, as well as Borrelia afzelii and Borrelia garinii in Europe and Asia. It is carried by blacklegged ticks, often called deer ticks, and is transmitted through the bite of the insect to a host. The bacteria then flows through the bloodstream and attaches itself to tissue.
As an inflammatory disease, the most common symptoms early on are aches and pain as well as fatigue.
Early Symptoms (within first 30 days):
– An expanding rash that resembles a bullseye
– Flu-like fever, aches and pains, and swollen lymph nodes
Later Symptoms (months after bite):
– Spreading of rash to other parts of the body
– Arthritis, joint pain and swelling
– Pain in muscles, tendons, and bones
– Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats
– Changes in vision
– Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
– Nerve pain and numbness
– Facial palsy
– Short-term memory loss and brain fog
If left untreated, the symptoms of Lyme Disease can become quite severe and debilitating for someone affected. There are a number of reports of individuals who have gone months and years without being properly diagnosed and, at that point, the long-term impacts of Lyme Disease take a while to be resolved.
Doctors will take into account the symptoms a patient is suffering from to determine whether or not Lyme Disease is the cause. They will usually end up relying on laboratory tests involving bloodwork.
Another method used when the patient is experiencing the above mentioned neurological symptoms is a spinal tap.
Patients who are diagnosed will then be treated with antibiotics for up to a month.
Diagnosing Lyme Disease isn’t that straightforward, however. For one thing, many of the symptoms resemble those of other illnesses such as the flu. The rash, which we all believe to be ultimate evidence, is only found in about 70% of reported cases. This means that at least 30% of people (more who are not reported) never get a rash. Doctors may not be prone to looking for Lyme Disease because of this.
As for the bloodwork, they can produce false negatives if done too soon (within the first 30 days) or if you already have a suppressed immune system. Even after that time period, there are currently no tests with 100% accuracy to diagnose Lyme Disease.
If found later on, long term antibiotic treatment is not recommended as it is not proven to cure the Lyme Disease. Such exposure to antibiotics is also shown to not be beneficial, and can actually be damaging, to the body and immune system.
Even after diagnosis and treatment, there are cases where patients can have symptoms persist or resurface after a time. This can be very difficult to treat as studies have shown that the infection is no longer active within the patients. Because of this, antibiotics are rendered useless.
This might be considered “worst case” as patients have to work with doctors for relief from their symptoms of severe fatigue and joint pain and swelling, as well as neurological issues.
The public needs a much better education regarding Lyme Disease and the possible long-term severity. The medical community also needs to work on more comprehensive ways of testing for this disease to avoid misdiagnosis.
The long term impact, while not the norm, is damaging enough that Lyme Disease warrants much more attention.
If you have been bitten by a tick, or have any of the above symptoms, do not be afraid to push your doctors for Lyme Disease testing.
– CDC on Lyme Disease
– Mayo Clinic on Lyme Disease
– American Lyme Disease Foundation
– John Hopkins Medicine on Lingering Symptoms of Lyme Disease
– National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on Chronic Lyme Disease
– CBS News on Untreated Lyme Disease