What do Avril Lavigne, George W. Bush and Richard Gere have in common? The answer—they’ve all fallen victim to Lyme disease. This disease has been in the spotlight recently, with several celebrities going public about their experiences. But what is Lyme disease, how do you get it, and how is it treated?
About Lyme disease
Around 30,000 people contract Lyme disease in the USA each year, 95% of whom are in the north-east and upper mid-west of the country. It’s carried by the blacklegged tick, which is found in the vegetation on many hiking trails and in forests. These ticks can attach to any part of your body and can also attach to animals (such as your pet dog) as well. Ticks can carry other nasty conditions too, but Lyme disease is the commonest. As such, it pays to be informed so you can protect yourself.
What are the symptoms?
If you’re unlucky enough to be bitten by an infected tick, you may develop a rash around the site of the bite, usually about a week later. However, 30% of people don’t get a rash, so don’t be complacent if you think you may have been bitten. Within a month, you may develop a fever, headache, persistent tiredness or listlessness, and swollen lymph nodes—all of which can be very debilitating. These symptoms can develop into something more serious and begin to affect your heart, your joints and your nervous system, leading to conditions such as Bell’s palsy and meningitis. About 60% of untreated cases of Lyme disease progress to further complications, including swollen, arthritic joints and memory loss. Although most people recover well following treatment, a small number develop post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, in which the symptoms continue long after the actual infection has ended, possibly caused by an overreaction of the body’s autoimmune system.
Preventing tick bites
The first weapon against Lyme disease is to try and prevent tick bites. If you’re going out in potentially tick-infested areas, wear long pants tucked into your socks along with a long-sleeved shirt. Use insect repellent (20-30% DEET), or, if you’re a regular hiker, consider buying insect repellent clothing as an added precaution. Where you can, keep to the center of trails and avoid brushing against surrounding vegetation. Shower within a couple of hours of getting home, then check your body carefully—including body crevices and hair—for any ticks. Parents should remember to check children and pets as well. Ticks can even travel on clothing and backpacks, so give them an hour’s session in a hot tumble drier to kill off any strays.
What if I find a tick?
Ticks can be removed easily by gripping at the base with a pair of tweezers and pulling firmly and steadily outwards so that the head doesn’t break off—it’s important to remember not to twist the tick for that reason. If you find the head stays embedded in the skin, try to remove it gently, but if it won’t come out, then leave it in place—it’s only the live tick that poses a danger. Treat the bitten area with an alcohol swab, iodine, or soap and water. Don’t squash the removed tick—simply wrap it in tissue and flush it away safely.
What if I develop symptoms?
You’re less likely to have been infected with Lyme disease if you find and remove the tick promptly, but if you miss one because it’s hidden away (e.g. in your hair), then you may not become aware of it until you get further signs. Keep an eye on the relevant spot to see if you get a rash, and be aware of any other symptoms such as a headache, fever or joint pains over the next few weeks. If you develop symptoms, or you’re in any way concerned, visit your family doctor promptly and explain the situation. Most cases of Lyme disease respond very well to antibiotics, so you’ll probably find you’re fit and well very soon. The earlier the symptoms are detected and treated, the less likely you are to suffer some of the more serious consequences, so don’t delay—seek medical help if you suspect you may have Lyme disease.