Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that humans can fall victim to after being bitten by a blacklegged tick (aka a deer tick).
Lyme is very prominent in the northeastern and midwestern areas of the United States, but cases do pop up in Texas from time to time. Spring and summer are “tick season,” so let’s take a few moments to discuss this debilitating illness.
How do folks contract Lyme disease?
Humans can become infected with Lyme disease after being bitten by a blacklegged tick carrying the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium. A tick’s typical modus operandi involves latching onto a victim, piercing the victim’s skin with their specialized jaws, and sucking the victim’s blood through the wound until the tick has had its fill. Lyme disease bacterium live in the tick’s saliva, and germs can get into the victim’s bloodstream while the tick is feeding.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
In its early stages (that is, between 3 and 30 days after being bitten by a tick), Lyme typically manifests as:
- Flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, chills, swollen lymph nodes, and aching muscles or joints.
- Erythema migrans, which is a skin rash that may feel warm to the touch but usually isn’t painful or itchy. EM rashes are most well-known for their distinct “bullseye” shape: a spot of red (right at the bite site) surrounded by a circle of clear skin and then another circle of red.
After 30 days, more advanced symptoms may appear:
- Severe headaches.
- Muscle stiffness.
- Additional EM rashes.
- Arthritis and severe joint swelling.
- Facial palsy.
- Short-term memory problems.
- Irregular heartbeat.
- Nerve pain, as well as pain in the muscles, joints, and bones.
- Numbness or tingling sensations in the hands and feet.
- Episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath.
Can Lyme disease be cured?
Yes. Lyme is usually treated with a regimen of antibiotics, and folks who seek treatment when the disease is still in its early stages often make a full recovery within two to four weeks. That said, patients who don’t receive treatment in a timely manner may suffer from symptoms of Lyme months or even years after the disease is “cured.” The most commonly reported symptoms of Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome or “chronic Lyme” are lingering fatigue and muscle/joint pain.
The most important aspect of Lyme prevention is avoiding tick bites in the first place. So if you’re going to be walking through a rural area where ticks are likely to hide…
- Cover up. When you’re going on a hike or a nature walk, it can be tempting to wear shorts and low-cut socks—especially during summertime, when it’s extra hot outside. But all of that exposed skin can leave you vulnerable to insect bites. Wearing long pants (and sleeves, if possible), ankle socks, and closed-toed shoes is much safer, as it limits the surface area that ticks can grab onto. Pop a hat on your head, and your tick-resistant “armor” is good to go!
- Clean up. Take a bath or shower within two hours of coming inside. Not only is this good hygiene in general, but it can help you find ticks that may be clinging to you. Bathwater probably won’t kill them, but it’s a good place to start! Wash your clothes, too.
- Check yourself. If bathing doesn’t reveal any ticks, then examine yourself thoroughly. You may need to use a mirror to view every inch of your skin. Don’t forget to check your groin, armpits, belly button, and the backs of your knees! Pay special attention to your hair, too.
- Check your pets. Though Lyme disease isn’t usually seen in dogs and cats, critters who go outside are more than capable of bringing ticks into your house—and ticks are able to make the jump from animal fur to human skin fairly easily. If your furry friend was outside for an extended period of time or playing in the woods, they need to be checked for ticks. And because wild animals can also ferry ticks in their coats, any pest animals that infiltrate your home should be cast out immediately.
I found a tick on my body, so I think I might have been exposed to a tick-borne illness. What do I do now?
First of all, try not to panic. Keep in mind that not all ticks carry diseases, so a single bite does not necessarily mean that you’ll contract an infection. But it is important to act quickly and be proactive:
- Don’t try to smother the tick. Contrary to popular belief, you should not cover the tick in petroleum jelly, liquid soap, or nail polish to suffocate it. While this may work to kill the tick, it may also just aggravate the little beast into releasing more saliva, or even vomiting the contents of its stomach directly into the bite wound—both of which increase your risk of becoming ill. These techniques also require you to apply your substance of choice and then wait several minutes for the tick to die, which wastes valuable time. The key is to get the tick off of you as soon as possible.
- Pluck it off. Using a pair of fine-tipped tweezers, grab hold of the tick as close to the skin as possible and lift upward using firm, even pressure. Try to avoid twisting or “picking” motions, and look closely to verify that you didn’t just take the tick’s body and leave the head behind.
- Dispose of the tick. Do not crush it between your fingers! Instead, you can drown it in rubbing alcohol, flush it down the toilet, or throw it in the garbage after wrapping it in tape and/or sealing it inside a plastic bag or container.
- Clean the wound. Thoroughly wash the injured area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, iodine scrub, or soap and water.
- Watch out for signs of trouble. If you develop a fever, a rash, or some other symptom of illness in the next few days, see a doctor as soon as possible, and let them know when you were bitten, where on your body you found the tick, and the location where you think that the tick may have come from. Your doctor will be able to run tests and come up with a treatment plan for any tick-borne illnesses you may have contracted.
Texans, don’t make the mistake of assuming that Lyme disease “doesn’t happen” in our neck of the woods. While our risk of getting sick is much lower than that of our friends and family in other areas of the country, we’re not immune to tick-borne illnesses. So while you’re enjoying the spring and summer sunshine, keep an eye out for ticks—and if you start to feel the symptoms of Lyme, then see a doctor immediately!