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Under the Microscope: Lyme Disease

Under the Microscope: Lyme Disease

Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne illness in North America, has earned a well-deserved reputation as a burdensome medical condition. In its more intense forms, it can bring about a multitude of symptoms, and can significantly alter a patient’s quality of life. By knowing more about the disease, you stand a better chance of successfully treating it or preventing it altogether.

Background Information

Given that Lyme disease is spread by the blacklegged tick (also referred to as the deer tick), it comes as no surprise that Lyme disease is almost always associated with this minute insect. Ticks contract Lyme after biting deer or mice that are infected with the condition. They then pass it on to humans through tick bites. Lyme disease is most often contracted during the spring and summer months. In the US, most cases of Lyme are found in the northeastern states (from Virginia to Maine), the north-central states (particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota) and the west coast (especially northern California). People in these areas often contract Lyme while hiking, gardening, hunting or performing activities in grassy patches of land. Lyme-carrying ticks can also hitch a ride into your home by clinging on to your pets.

Progression and Symptoms

Lyme disease affects a patient in three distinct stages. In the first stage, called early localized Lyme disease, the illness has not yet spread throughout the body. Lyme begins to progress through the patient by the second stage, known as early disseminated Lyme disease. By the third stage, late disseminated Lyme disease, the bacteria from the disease has infected the entire body of the patient. In order to infect a person, a tick must be attached to the patient for 24-36 hours. Ticks are generally so small that many people who are bitten by ticks don’t even notice them on their bodies. Fortunately, most people who get tick bites do not contract Lyme.

A person with stage 1 Lyme disease can expect myriad of unpleasant symptoms, such as fever, chills, itches throughout their body, headache, lightheadedness, muscle pain, stiff neck and general feelings of illness. A patient may see a sizable bulls-eye rash, with a clear center over the immediate area of the tick bite. These symptoms may disappear only to reappear later. If left untreated, Lyme disease can reach level 2 strength, and spread to the joints, heart and brain.

Stage 2 (early disseminated Lyme) causes even more troublesome problems. A person with this form of Lyme will generally experience muscle pain, swelling of the knees and other large joints, and various heart problems (such as heart palpitations). These symptoms typically develop weeks to months after the initial infection.

Symptoms of stage 3 Lyme, or late disseminated Lyme, develops much later than stage 1 or stage 2, as stage 3 symptoms may not appear in a patient for years after a tick bite. This form of Lyme causes serious problems in the patient, such as abdominal muscle movement, muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, and speech problems.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Lyme disease can be identified by antibodies the immune system creates to combat Lyme bacteria. These antibodies are usually found via blood tests. Doctors can also use test for Lyme by using electrocardiograms and echocardiograms. Electrocardiograms check the electrical activity of the heart, whereas echocardiograms use sound waves to develop a moving image of the heart. Lyme can also be diagnosed through spinal taps (in which spinal fluid is taken from the patient) or by an MRI of the brain. In places where Lyme is common, doctors may be able to diagnose stage 1 Lyme without the use of lab tests.

Doctors advise Lyme patients to closely monitor their health for about 30 days after a tick bite. Typically, Lyme disease is treated with a 2 to 4 week of regimen of antibiotics, as long as the patient has met certain following conditions:

  • The person has a tick that can be removed from their body.
  • The tick is thought to have been attached to the person in question for 36 hours.
  • Antibiotics can be administered to the patient 72 hours after the tick has been removed
  • The patient must be over 8 years old.
  • The patient must not be pregnant or breastfeeding

If caught early on, Lyme disease usually can be knocked out fairly early with the use of antibiotics. The disease can spread to the joints, brain and heart if left initially untreated, but later stages of the disease can still be effectively treated through intravenous antibiotics.

Useful Advice

There a number of measures you can take to protect yourself against Lyme-carrying ticks:

  • Avoid areas where tall grass meets small trees, shrubs and other brush. These areas are magnets for ticks.
  • Put on tick repellent on areas of the body that may be vulnerable to tick bites.
  • Wear shoes instead of sandals, and opt for long pants over shorts if the weather allows for it. You may also consider tucking your pants into your socks.
  • Try to relocate or remove leaf piles, underbrush and woodpiles near your house. Ticks tend to congregate around these areas.
  • Create a three-foot border between your lawn and the surrounding woods with mulch or wood chips. Place children’s play sets on wood chips that are a significant distance from this border.
  • Be especially vigilant for ticks during the summer months. In the summer, juvenile ticks can be hard to spot, as they may only be the size of a poppy seed.
  • Check your arms, armpits, legs, scalp and groin area for ticks after being outdoors.
  • Remove ticks on your body with tweezers. When doing so, remember to grab the tick by its head, not its body.
  • Once you have removed a tick from your body, be alert for any signs of Lyme disease. If you experience a round reddish rash near the bite and flu-like symptoms, you should consult with your doctor as soon as possible. If Lyme disease is diagnosed quickly, it can be treated and cured fairly easily.

Lyme disease poses a clear threat to the health and wellbeing of numerous Americans. The disease can lead to a number of health problems, which may not fully appear until weeks or months after the tick bite. By taking precautionary steps during the spring and summer months, and by following the correct medical procedures should you contract Lyme disease, you can protect yourself against the ravages of this tick-borne ailment.

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