Another summer, another year to fret over Lyme disease. Although we don’t want to frighten you, it is critical that we point out how the prevalence of Lyme disease has continued to grow year after year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of cases of Lyme disease diagnosed in the United States each year is 300,000. Looked at another way, the “number of outbreaks each year has more than tripled since 1980,” according to Porochista Khakpour, the author of Sick, a fact-filled memoir of the author’s ordeal with the disease.
Why is Lyme disease spreading so rapidly?
Mary Beth Pfeiffer, the author of Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change, argues that one reason for the spread of the disease is our warming climate, which is especially friendly to the black-legged ticks (aka, deer ticks) that can carry the bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) that are responsible for Lyme disease.
According to Yale epidemiology and Lyme disease researcher Katharine Walter, irresponsible approaches to climate change will make infectious diseases such as Lyme disease, which is highly sensitive to fluctuations in climate, even more prevalent. People are becoming more aware of this unintended consequence of climate change.
Diagnosing Lyme disease
One of the biggest challenges for healthcare providers when they are trying to determine a diagnosis is that some symptoms of the disease can mimic those of a cold or flu or similar conditions. This may mean that some people don’t get diagnosed properly for years. At the same time, experts have determined that the ticks that transmit Lyme disease also can infect you with other diseases at the same time.
Lyme disease is typically diagnosed using several different approaches, including taking a medical history, asking whether you have been in areas where ticks are common, and the presence of the characteristic bull’s eye rash that can appear around the tick bite site. Other diagnostic tools include use of blood tests, which are used to identify antibodies to the bacteria. Unfortunately, there are many false-positive results from these tests, which contributes to any anxiety the patient may be feeling as he or she waits for the diagnosis.
The lab tests usually used to identify antibodies to the bacteria include the following. They are typically most accurate a few weeks after one has become infected.
- Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test. This test is helpful, but it should not be used as the sole basis for diagnosis. ELISA results may not be positive during the early stage of Lyme disease.
- Western blot test. The recommendation for people who get positive test results from ELISA is to then have the Western blot test. The Western blot can find antibodies to several proteins of B. burgdorferi.
Symptoms of Lyme disease and how to handle them
People often think that unless they develop a bull’s eye rash around the tick bite site, they don’t have Lyme disease. Although the bull’s eye occurs in up to 90 percent of cases of Lyme disease, there’s always that 10 percent! It also takes anywhere from one day to about a month for the rash to appear after the tick bites, so it pays to inspect your body daily for any telltale signs of a tick bite.
In addition to the rash, fever, fatigue, headache, swollen lymph nodes (e.g., often in the neck or armpits), muscle pain, and achy joints are other symptoms of Lyme disease. These typically appear within 30 days of the tick bite. If left untreated, these symptoms will worsen and can result in severe joint pain and headaches, short-term memory loss, numbness in the hands or feet, and facial palsy.
Preventing, finding, and handling ticks
The ticks responsible for Lyme disease and associated conditions are most often deer ticks in their immature or nymph stage of life. These creatures are minute, smaller than a pin head, and therefore difficult to detect. That’s why it is so important to check your body daily and carefully during tick season and whenever you have been outside, especially in wooded or grassy areas.
Other ways to prevent exposure to ticks include:
- Wearing long pants and long sleeves
- Tucking your pant legs into your socks
- Staying on trails (rather than wandering into woodsy or grassy areas)
- Wearing light colored clothes (makes it easier to see any ticks on your clothing)
- Shower when you get home after possible tick exposure
- Spritz your clothing and body with a mixture of 2 ounces distilled water, 1 ounce vodka, and 5 to 20 drops of essential oil. The best choices are lavender, lemon, lemongrass, and eucalyptus.
Ticks naturally migrate to warm, moist areas of the body, such as the groin, scalp, armpits, and folds of skin. Because it can take the ticks 36 to 48 hours after they attach to your body before they transmit the disease-causing bacteria, you will likely avoid Lyme disease if you identify and remove any ticks before that time.
To remove ticks:
- Use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers to grab the tick as close to the surface of your skin as possible.
- Once you have grabbed the tick, pull upward without twisting or turning the tweezers. You want to avoid leaving the tick’s mouth parts in your skin.
- Once the tick has been removed, do not crush it with your fingers. Instead, wrap it in tape, put it into a container with alcohol, or flush it down the toilet. Alternatively, you can bring it to your doctor to have it tested.
- Thoroughly wash the affected area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
Belluz J. How climate change helped Lyme disease invade America. Vox 2018 Apr 13
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How many people get Lyme disease?
Graves G. Lyme disease is spreading at an alarming rate-and this is why. Vogue 2018 May 16