Tell me about Lyme disease in humans and how do you get it?
If you find yourself spending a lot of time outdoors and in grassy fields, you may be exposed to ticks. You may also be exposed to ticks if you have pets that spend time outdoors. However, only a minority of the ticks are able to spread the disease.
Lyme disease, being an infection that is caused by the bacteria transmitted to you by the bite of a female or baby blacklegged tick, which is also known as a Deer tick in America. It is one of the many tick-borne illnesses which afflict humans and animals and is usually endemic to North America and Eurasia.
A tick is a small parasite that sucks the blood of humans and other animals. They can be found worldwide and even in your own garden. The bacteria that cause Lyme disease are the shape of cork screws and are classified as Borrelia burgdorfei.
The tick needs to be latched onto the skin for 24 to 48 hours in order for you to be infected. Most people who are diagnosed with Lyme Disease have no recollection of a tick bite.
The following article takes a look into what Lyme disease is, its causes, symptoms, treatment and more. This information is purely intended as a guideline and not a means of treatment. Please consult with your doctor for professional medical care if you think you may be at risk of Lyme disease.
How can Lyme disease affect the body?
After you have been in nature, it is always best to check yourself for ticks.
If you find one has latched onto your skin, carefully remove it, making sure to remove its entire body and head (often the body can be removed, leaving the head behind, and ticks can survive and re-grow their bodies if the head is still intact).
Sufferers sometimes do not remember being bitten by a tick and start to display the symptoms that they may think are the result of another infection. That is why Lyme disease is known as an imitation disease. In this regard, the infection mimics the common symptoms of other conditions. It is able to infect any organ of the body, including the brain, nervous system, joints, heart and muscles. You normally start to experience fevers, headaches and body aches along with feelings of exhaustion.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
If you experience any of the below symptoms, it is important that you consult with your doctor. As mentioned, these symptoms are also common to other infections, but it is best to let your doctor define the diagnosis.
Lyme disease occurs in three stages of infection, your symptoms will be dependent on the stage you are currently in.
The stages are as follows:
Stage 1 (1-4 weeks): Early localised Lyme disease
The symptoms for this stage normally begin within a few days to weeks after infection from the tick bite. In some cases of Lyme disease, you may not notice signs of infection during this stage.
The bacteria begin to multiply in the bloodstream, with the first sign being that of a red, circular rash. It might look a lot like a ‘bull’s eye’.
This rash will develop at the site of the tick bite. It is not painful or itchy, just warm to touch. It is known as erythema migrans and will most likely disappear within four weeks.
With or without the rash, you may develop flu-like symptoms. These can include:
- A loss of energy
- Having a stiff neck and headache
- A fever and body chills
- Joint and muscle pains
- Inflamed lymph glands
- Vision changes
Stage 2 (1-4 months): Early disseminated Lyme disease
Here, the stages of one and two can overlap. As the bacteria continues to spread, the rash may also spread to other areas of the body. Neurological symptoms may begin to affect the nervous system and heart. Other symptoms can include:
- Multiple erythema migrans skin lesions (these usually appear within 3-5 weeks after tick bite)
- Pain and numbness in the legs or arms
- Inability to move muscles of the face
- Headaches and fainting continue to occur
- Inability to concentrate and loss of short-term memory
- Pinkeye (conjunctivitis) can occur due to damage to the tissue of the eyes
- Brief moments of joint pain, including swelling and redness of the knees or other joints
- Heart problems can develop such as palpitations of the heart (although very rare)
Should you or a loved one be experiencing any of the following symptoms and are in an area known for cases of Lyme disease or have been bitten by a tick, it is important that you seek medical care from your doctor to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment.
Stage 3: Late persistent Lyme disease
This stage can occur weeks, months and even years after the time of infection. This stage happens when you have not sought medical care and have not been treated in the previous stages. This is the most dangerous and last stage of the disease. The following symptoms may occur at this stage:
- The knees can become affected by arthritis
- Chronic fatigue
- Numb feeling in the feet, hands or back
- No control over facial muscles
- Memory issues and mood changes
- Heart problems such as inflammation of the structures surrounding the heart
It is important to note that stage two and three may be the first stages you notice, if
infected. This is because some people do not develop the rash.
When to see a doctor
If you have been bitten by a tick and start to display symptoms, especially if you think the tick has been on you for longer than 24 hours, you should consult with your doctor. The treatment will be far more effective if it is started earlier.
Even if your signs and symptoms disappear, the disease might still be present in your body. If left untreated the infection can spread to other parts of your body.
How is Lyme disease diagnosed?
Lyme disease, being a condition that mimics other common symptoms, can sometimes be difficult to diagnose if there is no specific rash formed around the site of the tick bite.
Another issue is that Lyme disease can also spread other diseases at the same time.
If you do not have the rash, but your doctor suspects that you have been bitten by a tick and contracted Lyme disease, he/she may ask you a series of questions about your medical history and do a physical exam. Then, your doctor may order the following tests in order to identify antibodies to the bacteria to help in confirming the diagnosis. These tests tend to be the most reliable a few weeks after the tick bite has taken place – giving your body time to produce the antibodies. The tests conducted can include:
- An enzyme immunoassay, also known as an EIA or ELISA test, is used to discover antibodies fighting against the bacteria Borrelia burgdorfei.
- A Western blot test can be conducted if the EIA test is positive to confirm results as there are a lot of cases of false positives with EIA tests. This test will detect antibodies to a variety of proteins of Borrelia burgdorfei.
- A polymerase chain reaction, known as a PCR, is used in order to examine people with a persistent case of Lyme arthritis (a development of Lyme disease that is uncommon). This test is conducted on spinal or joint fluid.
How is Lyme disease treated?
Due to Lyme disease being a bacterial infection, it is treated with antibiotics.
Kinds of antibiotics may include:
- Oral antibiotics which are known as a standard treatment for the early stages of Lyme disease. These are normally cefuroxime or amoxicillin for young children and breastfeeding or pregnant women or doxycycline for adults and children who are older than eight.
- Antibiotics can also be taken intravenously, which means they are injected with a needle or a drip into the vein. This is only needed when the disease has progressed to affect the nervous system. However, these types of antibiotics have side effects which should be taken into consideration. Speak to your doctor about the best options for you.
It is also possible to still experience symptoms, even after treatment. This is known as post-treatment Lyme disease, the exact cause of this is unknown. Some symptoms that may continue are often muscle aches and fatigue. Some doctors believe people who are prone to autoimmune diseases may have persistent symptoms. Some people may feel a bit worse and develop a fever immediately after starting the antibiotics but these symptoms usually resolve in about two days.
How is Lyme disease prevented?
Deer ticks are commonly found in areas of wooded, grassy and bushy vegetation. It is best to avoid these areas, but it is not always possible to do so. In order to decrease your risk of contracting Lyme disease, the following precautions can be taken, it is especially important to take these into consideration if you are in an area where known cases of Lyme disease have been reported.
- When in the above-mentioned areas, try to cover up as much as possible. Wearing shoes, long pants and long-sleeved shirts will help to do this. Also, tucking your pants into your socks and even wearing a hat and gloves can help as an extra measure. Try to walk on the trails and avoid going into thicker bush or grass. Keep your dog on a leash to prevent him from doing the same.
- Always apply insect repellents, avoiding your eyes, ears and mouth. Insect repellents with a 10 percent DEET (diethyltoluamide) will last about two hours on your skin. Try to use one that is 20 percent or higher. Permethrin, which is used on clothes, prevents ticks from getting onto clothes and attaching to the skin.
- Try to get rid of any places in your yard that may have ticks, these include thick bushes and other places where you have possibly found a tick before. Keep piles of wood in sunny areas to stop them becoming an ideal habitat for ticks.
- After being in nature or tick-prone areas, always check yourself and your kids for ticks. Some may be very small and difficult to spot, so it is important to try and be as thorough as possible. Deer ticks are sometimes the size of the head of a pin and are hard to see immediately. You often don’t feel when a tick latches onto you, so you should look carefully, especially between your fingers, toes and around your neck, head and ears. The latter can be difficult so you may need to ask someone to assist you in checking.
It is sometimes best to shower as soon as you get inside, as this may help to remove some ticks.
- It is also possible to contract Lyme disease more than once, so don’t assume that you are immune if you’ve already had it.
Remove the tick with tweezers as soon as you find it. Grabbing it by the head and making sure that you do not squeeze it too hard as its body might break off, leaving its head in your skin.
Once you have removed the entire tick, you should be able to see its head and body, treat the area of the bite with antiseptic.
Best practice will be to contact your doctor if you or your loved one is bitten by a tick and to keep in the tick in a sealed container for your doctor to determine if it is a Deer tick.
Some more questions you may have
How long does it take to get Lyme disease after a tick bite?
When it comes to the symptoms of Lyme disease, commonly the rash appears first and will begin to show anywhere between three and 30 days from infection (tick bite).
Is Lyme disease fatal in humans?
It is important to get Lyme disease treated as quickly as possible. Many people are misdiagnosed and studies show that only one in 10 cases of the disease are reported. If it is left untreated it can be fatal.
However, if detected early and treated correctly the disease is often curable.
Is Lyme disease contagious?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection passed from a tick to a human, it cannot be passed from one human to another.
Is Lyme disease in dogs contagious to other dogs?
Dogs and cats are able to contract Lyme disease, there is no evidence to say that it can be passed from pets to their owners, only the tick can infect the human or animal. Dogs with Lyme disease cannot infect other dogs.
Can Lyme disease be cured in humans?
If Lyme disease is able to be diagnosed early, it can normally be cured with antibiotics. If treatment is not administered, issues with joints, nervous system and heart can occur, however, these issues can still be treated and cured through the right medication.