May Is Lyme Disease Awareness Month

Campus

Lyme disease is a cruel illness, brought on in the United States by a spiral-shaped bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi and usually transmitted to humans and animals by the bite of infected ticks.

May Lyme Disease Awareness month brings national attention to the springtime emergence on vegetation and wood of nymph ticks, the second life-stage of ticks. As small as a period at the end of this sentence, they can be very hard to spot! That is why everyone needs to pay attention to this spreading health danger to our pets and us.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans, or EM rash. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system.”

The key to managing the disease is early detection; the CDC says many cases, if caught early, can be successfully treated with a heavy dose of antibiotics. But prevention remains the best course to follow: You can’t get sick if you don’t have the disease.

The CDC website (www.cdc.gov/lyme) has several helpful methods to help you prevent catching Lyme disease.

While not as prevalent as they are on the East Coast and Upper Midwest, ticks are a major risk factor in California, particularly because of our mild climate and large amounts of wooded areas populated by wildlife.

However, birds and small animals such, as mice, rats, squirrels and others, can carry and deposit ticks anywhere, including in parks and yards.

Symptoms of Lyme disease are divided into early and late symptoms. Early symptoms, usually starting within a few days of exposure, may include an expanding red rash called a bull’s eye rash, flu-like symptoms, fatigue, numbness and tingling, or pain. Early symptoms may fade away or persist.

Later symptoms may not develop for weeks or months, and may even be the first indications that someone has Lyme disease — i.e., some people have no initial symptoms for awhile.

Later symptoms, also called chronic Lyme disease, include fatigue, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, hormone irregularities, soft tissue and joint pain, muscle twitching, sensitivity to light and sound and chemicals, difficult digestion, difficulties with concentration and memory, heart problems and more.

Since not everyone has symptoms right away, anyone with a known tick bite is encouraged to get triage antibiotics of a sufficient dosage to knock out any chance of a Lyme infection. It’s important to see Lyme-literate medical professionals who are used to treating Lyme patients. Referrals to Lyme-literate medical professionals can be obtained at www.lymenet.org; post for referrals in the Seeking a Doctor section.

Tests are not always accurate. There is a culture test available now through Advanced Laboratory Services in Pennsylvania. If the test is able to grow the bacteria from the blood sample, that’s 100 percent indicative of Lyme disease. A negative result, however, does not mean someone doesn’t have Lyme — it could mean there weren’t any Lyme bacteria in the blood sample.

Antibody tests will test positive only 60-70 percent of the time, even when someone has Lyme disease. This can happen if there are no bacteria in the blood sample, if there are not enough antibodies, or the bacteria have gone into cyst form, etc.

That is why experienced Lyme-literate medical professionals treat clinically, based on history and symptoms. Often a person will test positive after some antibiotic treatment, when they have a stronger antibody response. Many other kinds of treatments may also be done.

Ticks can also transmit other infections, including Babesia, Bartonella, Ehrlichia and others. Anyone is encouraged to look up symptoms of these infections as well. Testing is not perfect for these other infections, so treatment for them is often clinical as well.

Our pets can get these infections too, as well as bring ticks inside. Vets are familiar with these illnesses and treatments for them.

The California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control outline several suggestions to minimize your exposure to ticks and tick-borne infectious disease:

  • Avoid wooded and grassy areas, particularly in the summer months, or areas such as fields that have wild rodents (ticks often live on these animals).
  • Wear appropriate clothing—always wear long pants with tall socks, if possible tucking your pants into your socks, long-sleeved shirts that are tight at the wrist and a hat. The hair is the most difficult place to find a tick.
  • Spray clothing with insect repellent. 
  • Always check yourself for ticks immediately following possible exposure.

If you have pets, check them for ticks after being outdoors. If you see a tick on your pet, do not remove it with your bare hands; use tweezers or go to a health facility for immediate removal.

In addition to the above-listed instructions, it is also a good idea to have skin tick repellent on, such as various essential oils. And it is very important to have tick repellent on pets, for their health’s sake and so they won’t bring ticks inside. Vets and pet stores offer options.

Even though May is recognized as Lyme Disease Awareness Month, ticks in California are active year-round, with nymph ticks biting in the spring and summer, and adult ticks active November through June. Thus we all need to be careful throughout the year.

The best prevention is to know what to look for. Go online to see what ticks look like and how to remove a tick that you find. Being pro-active and careful during time spent outdoors can have a significant impact on your ability to avoid a run-in with an infected tick.