Sharon awoke in the morning with a throbbing headache she couldn’t shake. Later that day she went to the doctor complaining of an achy tiredness and burning throat. Dr. Conroy popped a thermometer in Sharon’s mouth. “Have you been camping or in the woods lately?” she asked.
“Yes,” Sharon said. “We went camping over the weekend. And almost got lost. Why?”
“Well, you definitely have a fever, and if that rash on your arm was caused by a tick, you may have Lyme disease. We’ll need to take a blood test.”
The Lowdown on Lyme
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread primarily through the infected bite of the black-legged tick (the so-called deer tick) and the Western Black-Legged tick. The disease is found in most states, but especially in “hot spots” where ticks, mice, and deer are common–Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and northern California.
Anyone can get Lyme disease, and it’s possible to get it more than once. People usually become infected outdoors in grassy, woody, garden, or beach areas. And since the ticks are only the size of a pinhead, people often don’t realize they’ve been bitten.
They also sometimes miss the first symptom of the disease–usually a circular, painless rash spreading outward from the site of the bite. Harder to ignore, however, are the flulike symptoms–such as headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, and joint pain–that develop later.
If these symptoms are left untreated, more serious problems can set in. These include facial paralysis (Bell’s palsy), eye infections, heart irregularities, shortness of breath, stroke, deafness, crippling joint disease, hepatitis, and memory problems.
Early Treatment: A Must
Doctors diagnose Lyme disease from a person’s medical history and symptoms; they usually confirm it with a special blood test. Once you are diagnosed, the doctor usually prescribes antibiotics. Antibiotics are extremely effective in halting the disease, but they work faster during the early stages of infection. If the disease has progressed to many organs, it may be necessary to prescribe higher doses of antibiotics for a longer period of time. Even then, there’s no guarantee of a complete cure; some people suffer from chronic Lyme disease for years.
A dark side to taking antibiotics is they often interfere with the body’s immune system. As a result, people who have had Lyme disease and have been treated with antibiotics sometimes are more vulnerable to reinfection.
Physically protecting yourself from ticks is your best safeguard against getting Lyme disease. Here are some suggestions:
* Avoid high grass and woodlands especially during peak tick seasons (which vary depending on the geographic area). If you’re going hiking or walking, stick to the middle of paths and trails.
* Wear light-colored clothing (preferably long sleeves and slacks) so you can more easily spot ticks; tuck your pants into your socks and your shirt into your pants. Wear a hat. Avoid going barefoot.
* Apply a bug repellent containing DEET to your skin and clothes–especially at the tops of shoes, socks, and pant cuffs.
* Conduct tick checks hourly if you’re in infested areas. Brush off any ticks hanging onto your clothes. At home, shower off the repellent and examine your skin and scalp for any remaining parasites. Make tick checks a daily part of your routine during tick season.
* Learn the proper way to remove ticks. (Using a pair of fine tweezers, grab the tick close to the skin line; put firmly and straight up until the tick lets go. Flush the insect away, and wash the bite area with soap and water.) If you’re not sure how to remove ticks, seek help within 24 hours. Call your doctor if you see a rash or have flulike symptoms.
* Discourage ticks from living around your home: Mow your grass regularly, cut the brush back from your yard, and keep your bird feeders and woodpiles at a distance from your residence.
* Make frequent tick checks on your pets; special tick combs help. Use veterinarian-recommended tick repellent sprays or special collars.
In 1975 a large cluster of people in Lyme, Connecticut, were diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors later discovered their patients’s aches and pains were caused by Lyme disease, named after town. This disease’s broad range of symptoms make it a agnostic nightmare. Lyme disease (dubbed the “Great Imitator” by doctors) is capable of mimicking as many as 200 other illnesses, including infectious mononucleosis and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Another reason Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose is the unreliability of current laboratory tests.
Misdiagnosis and overdiagnosis can occur. You may receive no treatment or inappropriate treatment that can end up hurting you physically and financially. in one New Jersey hospital, for example, some patients (later found to be misdiagnosed with Lyme disease) wound up with gall bladder complications due to unnecessary treatment with intravenous antibiotics.
You can minimize your risk of misdiagnosis by mustering an all-out effort to protect yourself against ticks. If your doctor knows you’ve been “tick smart,” he or she can more easily eliminate Lyme disease as a possible cause of any symptoms you’re having.
Take time out for tick protection. Once you know the rules of the “prevention game,” it’s as simple as playing tic(k)-tack-toe.
Moving Toward a Magic Bullet
Last year scientists and volunteers started testing a Lyme disease vaccine. So far more than 10,000 volunteers in five states have participated in trial required by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), and the results have been encouraging.
Researchers hope a safe vaccine will be available within two years.