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Lyme Disease

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Lyme disease is caused by a bacterial infection that occurs due to a bite of a tick. It leads to fever, headache as well as a typical rash associated with the disease. This disease is very common in wooded or grassy areas of United States that includes Northeast, northern Midwest as well as Pacific Northwest.

How is Lyme Disease Transmitted?

This bacterial illness is caused by three species of the bacteria from the genus Borrelia. There are three species of these bacteria of which Borrelia burgdorferi causes Lyme disease in United States. This bacterium is carried by a tick called Blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus). These ticks suck the blood of deer, raccoons, foxes, chipmunks, horses, mice or other animals. This causes the bacteria to be transferred in the tick’s body from the animal body after a blood meal.

When the tick bites a human, the bacteria get transferred into the victim’s blood stream. The ticks tend to attach themselves in areas of body where they are not easily disturbed during a meal. For example, the groin or armpit is the common place where the ticks settle themselves for a meal. These ticks should be able to feed for at least 36 to 48 hours more, to allow the transfer of the bacterium from the tick’s body into the human body. It is mostly the ticks in nymph stage that transfers the bacteria into the human body. This is because they are so tiny, making them almost invisible to the human eye. By the time one begins to itch or experience discomfort in the affected region, many hours may have passed.

Signs and Symptoms of Lyme Disease

Lyme disease occurs in three stages; stage 1, stage 2 and stage 3. It is important to get treatment during the early stages. It affects different systems of the body and not every infected person will experience all the below mentioned symptoms.

Stage 1 (Early Symptoms)

In this stage, the disease is localized, that is, not spread in throughout the body. Areas where the ticks have come in contact with the skin are affected. One will observe a circular, rash typical of this disease. It is called as erythema migarans (EM). The rash is warm to touch and appears red. The inner part and the outer portion of the rash is dark red in color. The middle region is colorless, that makes it appear like a bull’s-eye. Other symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Malaise
  • Muscle soreness

Stage 2 (Early Disseminated Disease)

After a few days, the bacteria begin to spread throughout the body. Soon, the rash will be observed on other parts of the body. One may start developing neurological problems like:

  • Loss of muscle tone in face
  • Facial paralysis
  • Stiff neck
  • Severe, unbearable headaches
  • Meningitis
  • Abnormal sensations on skin
  • Swelling in joints
  • Heart ailments
  • Speech problems
  • Loss of memory
  • Inflammation in eyes
  • Hepatitis

Stage 3 (Late Disseminated Disease)

Patients, who do not complete their treatment or do not get treated in the early stages, develop late disseminated disease. They begin to suffer from chronic symptoms that affect their vital organs. The brain, eyes, heart, joints as well as nerves start developing severe symptoms. The disease is now fully spread throughout the body and the following symptoms are observed:

  • Pain, numbness and tingling in hands and feet
  • Problems with concentration and memory
  • Depression
  • Weakness in legs
  • Unusual gait
  • Vertigo
  • Lyme arthritis
  • Baker’s cyst

Complications of Lyme Disease

After years of treatment, some patients can still develop complications. These complications include:

  • Irregularities in heart rhythm
  • Cognitive disorders
  • Lyme arthritis
  • Facial paralysis or Bell’s palsy
  • Neuropathy

Diagnosis of Lyme Disease

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It is very difficult to diagnose Lyme disease. This is because the symptoms are very similar to other conditions. Although the disease is caused by a tick bite, it is very difficult to pinpoint as the bite rarely causes any discomfort. The bull’s-eye rash is the best way to diagnose Lyme disease. In case the rash is not present, a blood test is ordered. These tests include ELISA test to check the level of antibodies in the body against the bacteria. Second test includes Western blot. It is carried out after the ELISA test is uncertain or found to be positive. At times, lumbar puncture and Polymerase chain reaction are also carried out.

Treatment for Lyme Disease

Antibiotics are given to treat the early stage Lyme disease. The course of antibiotics last for a week or two. At times, intravenous antibiotics are given in case the central nervous system is affected. At times, pain relievers are advised to patients who suffer from joint pain.

Prognosis for Lyme Disease

It is very important to treat the disease in its early stages. Antibiotic treatment will help in curing the disease. If any lapse in the treatment, it will lead to many complications. These complications include heart ailments, nervous system problems as well as joint diseases.

Prevention of Lyme Disease

The best way to prevent Lyme disease is as follows:

  • One should avoid getting into wooded, bushy as well as grassy areas during warm months.
  • One should stick to trails when walking and not get diverted into the grassy paths.
  • Wear protective clothing like socks, full sleeve shirts as well as cover your legs to prevent ticks from sticking to your skin.
  • If one observes ticks sticking to their body, make sure they are removed properly. Do not break the mouth parts from its body. As it will still lead to transfer of bacteria into the blood.
  • Wear an insect repellent containing DEET for skin when moving outdoors. Also, make sure you wear a cap and tie your long hair properly to avoid ticks sticking to your scalp.

Antibiotic therapy helps in curing majority of the people suffering from Lyme disease. If one leaves the treatment halfway or does not follow the treatment plan regularly, it leads to chronic problems. Thus, make sure you visit a doctor as soon as you develop the skin rash or show signs of illness. Those living in Lyme disease prone areas should always follow preventive measures and teach their children to follow the same.

Written by: Saptakee sengupta
Date last updated: February 4, 2015