When most people hear the word Lyme in the summer, the first thing that may come to mind is the fruit that complements summertime drinks. Unfortunately, in this area, Lyme refers to the infectious disease that can cause major health complications and even lead to death. According to the CDC, in 2016 there were more than 26,000 cases of Lyme disease in the United States. Out of those, 12,000 were reported from New Jersey and Pennsylvania alone. That’s over 46 percent of all United States cases coming from this region, so understanding how to recognize and prevent Lyme disease can go a long way in helping you have a fun and safe summer.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria carried by deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks. Symptoms can occur as early as three days after the bite to months after, making it hard to tell sometimes whether you have it or not. Getting infected from a tick bite depends on how long the tick is attached to you. The CDC reports that to get infected the tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours. This sounds like a long time, but these tiny ticks tend to attach to places where they aren’t always obvious such as under your hair or on your back, making detection difficult.
Symptoms for Lyme are wide ranging. One of the first symptoms in most people includes a rash around the bite area, and in 30 percent of cases this often painless rash resembles a bull’s eye. From here additional symptoms of Lyme may develop that can really impact your daily routine, including fever, fatigue, severe headaches, neck stiffness, arthritis with severe joint pains especially in the knees, heart palpitations, and even inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. These symptoms can really take a toll on your daily activities.
If you have had a tick bite or have recently been outside in tall grass or in the woods and begin to notice these symptoms, getting to the doctor fast can make a big difference. There are three main stages associated with a Lyme infection. In addition to the rash, early localized Lyme’s infection may present as a fever, headache, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes. Next is early disseminated Lyme. This stage can include additional symptoms such as joint swelling, weakness of one side of the face, numbness in the arms and legs, and possible vision changes and even heart rhythm problems. The final stage in untreated patients is late disseminated Lyme which can take place months after the bite but may not be diagnosed until much later. Doctors diagnose early stage Lyme based on your symptoms and a history of exposure to ticks and may not wait for blood tests to start treatment. While blood tests can be done to test for it, they aren’t always accurate in the first few weeks after exposure. This is because the antibodies showing an infection take a few weeks to develop. Blood tests are much more helpful for diagnosing the later stages of Lyme. Tests are also not recommended when you don’t have symptoms.
Treating and preventing Lyme can be an easy process if you are diligent when spending time outside or in the woods. Always wear long pants and socks in the woods, use a tick repellent on your skin, check yourself for ticks and shower within two hours after being outside, and put your clothing in a hot dryer to kill any ticks left on your clothes. Treatment can be easy as well. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic such as Doxycycline, Amoxicillin, or Cefuroxime. Taking any of these for from 10 days to three weeks will treat early stage Lyme in at least 90 percent of the cases and will prevent later complications. If you do find a tick that has been attached for more than a day, some doctors may also prescribe a single dose of an antibiotic to prevent infection.
Summertime is about being outside and enjoying the weather with your family and friends. This increases your risk in contracting Lyme disease, as well contracting as several other serious infections that are transmitted by ticks, so be mindful of where you are. If you are in a woodland region make sure to follow preventative steps. Second, if you start to experience symptoms get to your doctor or visit an urgent care as soon as possible – it can save your summer and even your life.
Henry S. Fraimow, MD, is a Hospital Epidemiologist with Cooper’s Division of Infectious Diseases. To learn more about this topic, click here. If you suspect you’ve been bitten by a tick, or develop a rash that requires attention, click here for a complete list of our Cooper Urgent Care Center locations and hours.