The Lyme Epidemic

The Lyme  Epidemic

A tiny insect called the deer tick, the size of a mere poppy seed, is wreaking havoc on the health of thousands of people across the country. Researchers now estimate that these nasty little blood suckers infect over 300,000 people with the bacterial infection known as Lyme disease every single year.

This number has been steadily increasing for more than a decade. Cases of tick-borne diseases doubled from 2004 to 2016, with 82 percent of those cases being Lyme, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most cases of Lyme disease are contracted between the months of May and October. Meaning: Right now, your risk is at its highest. And not so lucky for all of us: Pennsylvania leads the pack.

“Pennsylvania has led the country with cases of Lyme for the past three years, and the Lehigh Valley is one of the larger density areas,” says Jeffrey Jahre, M.D., infectious disease specialist at St. Luke’s University Hospital Bethlehem Campus. “We’re not talking about something exotic, we’re talking about something that’s now commonplace.”

Symptoms to Watch For

After an infected tick bites you and starts feeding on your blood, it may regurgitate some of its stomach contents back into the bite site, thereby transferring the Lyme bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) into your body. Pretty nasty, right? After this happens, most people who have contracted Lyme will notice their first symptoms within two to 30 days.

Typically, early Lyme disease symptoms consist of flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, and fatigue as well as a gradually expanding rash that looks like a bullseye and is larger than a half-dollar coin in size, says Dr. Jahre. This rash is present in about two-thirds of people infected with Lyme.

If left untreated, additional symptoms may develop after a few months. According to the CDC, these can include: Severe headaches and neck stiffness, an irregular heartbeat, severe joint and muscle pain, facial palsy, shooting pains and numbness in hands and feet, and short-term memory problems.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Many people can make a full recovery from Lyme disease if they catch symptoms early, even if they progress to some of the more serious symptoms mentioned above. Here are a few different scenarios and what treatment might look like for each:

  • If you find a deer tick attached to you, and you know it’s been there for less than 24 hours, remove it and monitor yourself closely for the symptoms mentioned above. If you feel fine after 30 days, you’re probably in the clear and do not have Lyme disease.
  • If you find a deer tick attached to you that’s engorged and you suspect it’s been attached for a while, talk to your doctor about prescribing you a single, prophylactic dose of an antibiotic like Doxycycline. “This can be very effective at reducing the transmission rate and preventing the development of Lyme disease,” he says.
  • If you don’t spot the tick, but you notice classic Lyme disease symptoms including a bullseye rash and flu-like symptoms, go see your doctor ASAP. They will likely prescribe you antibiotic treatment for anywhere from 10 to 21 days.
  • If you’re symptoms aren’t quite as obvious–maybe you have all of the flu-like symptoms and some joint pains, but no rash–you should still see your doctor and ask for a blood test to help confirm or rule out a Lyme diagnosis. Lyme tests aren’t foolproof, however, and retesting again in a few weeks may be necessary if you initially receive a negative diagnosis but your symptoms persist.

“If it takes you a while to receive a diagnosis, IV antibiotic treatment may be necessary to treat some of your more advanced symptoms,” says Dr. Jahre.

How to Prevent Tick Bites

Of course, your best bet to avoid Lyme is to steer clear of ticks. Easier said than done, but Dr. Jahre offers up a few tips:

  • Avoid ticks’ natural habitats: These include brushy, damp, overgrown areas. That means it’s important to keep your lawn mowed and stick to the trails when you’re out hiking.
  • Use the right repellent: Look for repellents containing the active ingredients DEET, Picardin, and IR3535, all of which can be safely applied to the skin; and consider applying Permethrin to your shoes and clothing, which can be extremely effective at preventing ticks from getting on you in the first place.
  • Do a tick check: After spending time outside in nature, check yourself and your kids. Ticks typically crawl up your body and take refuge in hard-to-see areas, including the armpits, groin area, behind the knees, behind the ears, and on your scalp.

How to Remove a Tick

1. Use a pair of tweezers to grab the tick as close to your skin as possible.

2. Pull upward, making sure not to twist, tear, or squeeze the tick (this can push bacteria into your body or leave parts of the tick embedded in your skin).

3. Clean the affected area with soap and water.

4. Monitor yourself for symptoms

of Lyme disease.

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