As summer approaches, the number of reported Lyme disease cases continues to grow, most notably in North America, where the hills are alive with woodland creatures.
It is a time where those who enjoy the great outdoors are more likely to come into contact with the infamous “black-legged tick” which resides in grassy, outdoor areas.
In this article, we want to equip you will all of the knowledge you need to protect yourself against contracting Lyme disease. Welcome to the LetsGetChecked ultimate guide to Lyme disease!
- What Is Lyme Disease?
- How Can You Get Lyme Disease?
- What Is The First Sign Of Lyme Disease?
- The Signs And Symptoms Of Lyme Disease?
- What Happens If You Go Untreated For Lyme Disease?
- What Are The Stages Of Lyme Disease?
- How Do You Detect Lyme Disease?
- Should You Get Tested For Lyme Disease?
- What Are The Treatment Options For Lyme Disease?
What Is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection which may be caused by the bite of a bacteria-carrying black-legged tick, commonly known as a Deer tick.
Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis) is caused by bacteria known as Borrelia (B. burgdorferi, B. mayonii, B.garinii and B. afzelii).
Borrelia burgdorferi and Borrelia mayonii are most common in the United States, whereas Borrelia afzelii and Borrelia garinii are more common in Europe and Asia.
Borrelia bacteria is most likely to enter the bloodstream when an infected tick bites a person and begins to feed on their blood. As ticks feed on blood, they simultaneously inject Borrelia bacteria into the bloodstream, leading to infection.
As mentioned, Lyme disease is an issue which becomes most problematic during the Summer months as tick breeding season is at its highest level.
Generally speaking, the longer a tick has been attached to the skin, the higher the chance of contracting Lyme disease.
Research suggests that ticks need to be attached to the skin and feeding for over 24 hours before there is a real risk of infection.
If a tick is removed as soon as it bites, the risk of infection is very low.
How Can You Get Lyme Disease?
You can get Lyme disease through the bite of an infected deer tick. Borrelia bacteria may enter your skin if you are bitten by an infected deer tick.
If the bite of a deer tick goes unnoticed, bacteria may make its way into the bloodstream, causing a whole host of negative symptoms.
A tick must be attached to the skin for over twenty four hours for bacteria to enter the bloodstream (in most instances). Other research reports that it can take 36-48 hours to contract Lyme disease.
Young black-legged ticks are often no bigger than a poppy seed, which can make them impossible to spot.
Ticks can attach to any part of the body, but they are often found in hard-to-see areas with a warm temperature, such as the groin, armpits and scalp.
The majority of those who get Lyme disease are infected through the bites of immature ticks called nymphs.
Nymphs are almost invisible to the naked eye which makes detecting them less likely. That is why the majority of people who are infected with Lyme disease are infected through younger ticks.
Adult ticks can also transmit Lyme disease bacteria, but they are much larger and are more likely to be discovered and removed before they have had time to transmit the bacteria into the bloodstream.
Let's take a look at some of the instances in which you can and can't get Lyme disease.
You can get Lyme disease from the bite of an infected deer tick.
You cannot pass Lyme disease from person-to-person via touching, kissing or having sex with someone who has Lyme disease.
You cannot pass Lyme disease to your unborn baby during pregnancy, however untreated Lyme disease can lead to infection of the placenta, leading to complications in pregnancy.
You cannot pass Lyme disease onto domestic animals such as cats and dogs.
You cannot pass Lyme disease through breast milk.
You cannot pass Lyme disease through food or water.
You may pass Lyme disease on through donating blood with untreated Lyme disease. Do not donate blood if you have untreated Lyme disease.
Some factors that increase your risk of you getting Lyme disease include:
- Spending a significant amount of time in woodlands or grassy areas.
- Not using appropriate repellants based on where you are spending a lot of time outside.
- Having uncovered skin.
- Not removing ticks promptly or properly.
What Is The First Sign Of Lyme Disease?
The first sign of Lyme disease is usually a small red bump, visible on the skin. This bump will appear where you have been bitten by a tick bite or where a tick has been removed.
It is important to remember that the majority of Lyme disease cases will arise from an infected tick being attached to the skin for at least 24 hours.
In most instances, this small red bump will resolve on its own. If the small red bump doesn't disappear, and instead begins developing into a rash, it's a primary indicator that you may have Lyme disease.
Erythema migrans is the name commonly given to the rash that develops after the initial bite from a deer tick. This rash is usually in a bulls-eye pattern, however it is important to note that this rash can take on many different patterns as detailed below.
Between 3-30 days after the initial tick bite, a red rash may begin to expand and spread. A tell-tale sign of Lyme disease occurs when they centre of the rash goes from red to clear at the centre, often referred to as a "Bulls-eye Rash."
This bull's-eye pattern may expand to twelve inches across the infected area, it is a trademark of the disease, but it's also important to remember that it is not a given for everyone who is diagnosed with Lyme disease.
Some of the other first signs of Lyme disease might include fever, fatigue, chills, aches and pains, headaches, stiffness and swollen glands.
If the first signs of Lyme disease are severe or you feel unwell, go straight to your doctor for further advice.
The Signs And Symptoms Of Lyme Disease?
The signs and symptoms of Lyme disease are largely dependent on what stage of Lyme disease you are at.
Some of the early symptoms of Lyme disease, as we have mentioned include:
- Body aches and pains
- Swollen glands
Some of the more uncommon symptoms of Lyme disease often present themselves if the Lyme disease has gone untreated over a substantial period of time.
Some of the later symptoms of Lyme disease may include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Heart problems, such as an irregular heart beat
- Hepatitis (liver inflammation or scarring)
- Eye inflammation or impaired vision
What Happens If You Go Untreated For Lyme Disease?
In this section, I will detail what happens if you go untreated for Lyme disease and why.
Untreated Lyme disease can lead to a number of negative side effects and more serious health conditions. These may include:
- Chronic joint inflammation
Chronic joint inflammation may occur in cases of untreated Lyme disease as Borrelia bacteria invades the joints as well as the tissues that line the joints. The body may produce an inflammatory response when the cartilage in the joints becomes damaged. Lyme disease and lyme-disease related arthritis often go hand in hand. If you are suffering from Lyme disease, it is likely that you will experience stiffness and pain in the knees, wrists, ankles, hips and elbows. Most people who go untreated for Lyme disease will end up with swelling localized in the knees.
- Neurological symptoms
It is reported that in very rare cases and in the later stages of Lyme disease, Borrelia bacteria may cross the brain barrier. This may happen because in the time period that the Lyme disease has gone untreated, the bacteria has continuously replicated and become more powerful. This can lead to neurological symptoms such as numbness, pain, weakness, Bell's palsy, visual disturbances and meningitis symptoms. It has been reported that Lyme disease may cause cognitive dysfunction, by cause of neurological symptoms but as of yet, this is unproven.
- Heart rhythm irregularities
Lyme disease may develop to Lyme carditis in an instance where Borrelia bacteria enters the tissues of the heart. The CDC says that "this can interfere with the normal movement of electrical signals from the heart’s upper to lower chambers, a process that coordinates the beating of the heart. The result is something physicians call “heart block,” which can be mild, moderate, or severe. Heart block from Lyme carditis can progress rapidly."
Lyme carditis is very rare and only occurs in approximately 1% of cases reported to the CDC.
Most individuals with Lyme disease respond well to antibiotics and have full recovery. In a small percentage of individuals, symptoms may continue or recur, requiring additional antibiotic treatment. Varying degrees of permanent joint or nervous system damage may develop in individuals with late-stage Lyme disease.
What Are The Stages Of Lyme Disease?
Stage 1 | Early, localized Lyme disease (1-4 weeks)
One of the earliest signs is a “bull’s-eye” rash, which is a sign that bacteria are multiplying in the bloodstream. The rash occurs at the site of the tick bite as a central red spot surrounded by a clear spot with an area of redness at the edge. It may be warm to the touch, but it isn’t painful and doesn’t itch. This rash will disappear after four weeks.
The formal name for this rash is erythema migrans. Erythema migrans is said to be characteristic of Lyme disease. However, many people don’t have this symptom. Some people have a rash that is solid red, while people with dark complexions may have a rash that resembles a bruise.
Stage 2 | Early disseminated infection (1-4 months)
Early disseminated Lyme disease occurs several weeks after the tick bite. During this stage bacteria are beginning to spread throughout the body. It’s characterized by flu-like symptoms, such as:
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Sore throat
- Vision changes
- Muscle aches
During early disseminated Lyme disease you’ll have a general feeling of being unwell. A rash may appear in areas other than the tick bite, and neurological signs such as numbness, tingling, and Bell’s palsy can also occur. This stage of Lyme disease can be complicated by meningitis and cardiac conduction disturbances. The symptoms of stages 1 and 2 can overlap
Stage 3 | Late Persistent Lyme disease
Late disseminated Lyme disease occurs when the infection hasn’t been treated in stages 1 and 2. Stage 3 can occur weeks, months, or years after the tick bite. This stage is characterized by:
- Severe headaches
- Arthritis of one or more large joints
- Disturbances in heart rhythm
- Brain disorders (encephalopathy) involving memory, mood, and sleep
- Short-term memory loss
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mental fogginess
- Problems following conversations
- Numbness in the arms, legs, hands, or feet
How Do You Detect Lyme Disease?
You can detect Lyme disease through blood testing. Put simply, if you think you have Lyme disease, you need to get tested immediately. If your physician believes that you have Lyme disease, you will more than likely be put on a course of antibiotics.
There are two common blood tests that are used to test for Lyme disease. These blood tests include:
- Enzyme Immunoassay (EIA) → A Blood Test Which Measures Antibodies In The Blood
EIA tests are laboratory tests that are commonly used to detect viruses. An "ELISA" test which stands for "Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay" pretty much carries out the same purpose as an EIA. Both tests are used to detect the antibodies present in your bloodstream.
The benefits of EIA and ELISA tests lies in the fact that they are simple, inexpensive and accurate.
- Western Blot → Blood Test Measuring Specific Proteins (Antibodies)
Western Blot tests are commonly used to confirm a positive ELISA.
A Western blot test is generally used to confirm a positive HIV diagnosis. The test requires a small sample of blood and is used to detect viral antibodies, not the HIV virus itself.
The Western blot test separates the blood proteins and detects the specific proteins that may indicate an infection. The Western blot is used to confirm a positive ELISA, and the combined tests are 99.9% accurate.
- Immunofluorescence Assay (IFA) → Blood Test Measuring Antigens In The Blood)
Immunofluorescence allows researchers to evaluate antigens in the blood by shining a fluorescent light on a sample.
Should You Get Tested For Lyme Disease?
You should get tested for Lyme disease if you have been bitten by a tick. You should especially take a Lyme disease test if the tick went undetected for over 24 hours, as there is a greater likelihood of contracting Lyme disease in these instances.
If you notice Erythema migrans, ensure that you seek out testing immediately. Always bear the early symptoms in mind following significant periods spent in grassy or woodland areas.
To recap on some of the earlier symptoms of Lyme disease, keep an eye out for:
Rash: Do you have a bullsye shaped rash?
Itch: Do you feel itchy or tingly?
Flu: Do you have a headache, fever, chills or fatigue?
LetsGetChecked provide an at-home Lyme Disease Test which tests the blood for antibodies that are associated with Lyme disease.
You should consider taking this test if:
- You are presenting with symptoms of Lyme disease in the days following being bitten or having the tick removed
- You live in a place that is rich in vegetation or woodland
- You live in Northern America or Northern Europe
- You go camping or hiking on a regular basis, particularly during the Summer or Autumn
- You come into contact with larger woodland animals on a regular basis
If your symptoms are severe, go straight to your doctor.
What Does The Lyme Disease Test measure?
Borrelia Antibodies Immunoglobulin M (IgM)
Immunoglobulin M (IgM) is an antibody that is found mainly in the blood and lymph fluids. It is the first antibody that is produced in the body following an infection. A high concentration of IgM in the blood indicates that you have recently contracted Lyme disease.
Borrelia Antibodies IgG
Immunoglobulin G is the most abundant antibody found in the body. It attacks bacterial and viral infections when they enter the body. A high concentration of IgG and low concentration of IgM indicates that you have been infected with Lyme disease for a period of time.
What Are The Treatment Options For Lyme Disease?
The treatment for Lyme disease involves antibiotics which can either be taken orally or through an injection
People treated with appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely.
Antibiotics commonly used for oral treatment include doxycycline, amoxicillin, or cefuroxime axetil.
People with certain neurological or cardiac forms of illness may require intravenous treatment with antibiotics such as ceftriaxone or penicillin.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded several studies on the treatment of Lyme disease that show most people recover when treated within a few weeks of antibiotics taken by mouth.
Though Lyme disease is very curable, some physicians report of non-specific symptoms in their patients such as on-going fatigue, joint and muscle aches as well as non-specific pain.
Those who are experiencing symptoms after their treatment are said to experience PTLDS (Post Lyme Disease Syndrome.)
If diagnosed in the early stages, Lyme disease can be cured with antibiotics. Without treatment, complications involving the joints, heart, and nervous system can occur. But these symptoms are still treatable and curable.
An antibiotic administered via injection may be required to treat late-stage infection. Late-stage treatment can last many months as seen in other infections as well. In addition to intravenous antibiotics, patients being treated for late-stage Lyme disease, often receive supportive therapies.
Some experts believe that certain people who get Lyme disease are predisposed to develop an autoimmune response that contributes to their symptoms.
We hope that this article hasn't frightened you, and instead it has acted as the perfect guide in ensuring that you don't contract Lyme disease.
If you are worried or have any questions, reach out to us.
If you are very worried about symptoms or you are feeling ill, go straight to your physician's office.
Written by Hannah Kingston | Approved by Medical Director Dr. Dominic Rowley