Lyme disease is one of the most common infections spread by ticks within the Northern Hemisphere. As per estimates almost 300,000 people every year in the United States & about 65,000 people every year in Europe are affected with Lyme disease. Spread of this infection is mostly found to occur during spring & early summer. Lyme disease was first diagnosed as a separate infectious condition in 1975 in Old Lyme, Connecticut USA. Transmitted to humans by bite of infected ticks of Ixodes genus, this infection is not transmissible between humans, or by animals or through food.
Also known as Lyme Borreliosis, Lyme disease is an infection caused by a bacterium called Borrelia Burgdorferi Sensu Stricto, Borrelia Afzelii & Borrelia Garinii. Most common sign of Lyme disease infection is an expanding redness of area at the site of tick bite on skin known as erythema migrans. Neither itchy nor painful, almost 25% of people affected by tick bite develop this rash. Other common symptoms of Lyme disease include headache, fever & general feeling of tiredness. Surge of symptoms in untreated cases include inability to move one or both sides of the face, neck stiffness, severe headaches, joint pains or heart palpitations. While blood tests are often negative in early stages, diagnosis is based on combination of systems, tick exposure history & testing for specific antibodies in blood.
Untreated Lyme disease produces a variety of symptoms depending upon the stage of infection. In case you experience fever, facial paralysis & arthritis along with a reddish rash after having a tick bite, seek immediate medical attention. More so if you live in an area or have recently travelled to regions where Lyme disease normally occurs.
Lyme disease is normally diagnosed based on the signs & symptoms of infection. History of possible exposure to the infected blacklegged ticks will also help determine. Laboratory blood tests are only helpful in cases where they are used correctly & performed with valid methods. These lab tests are not recommended for patients who do not display typical symptoms of Lyme disease. It is quite important to correctly diagnose Lyme disease. As per the same logic, it is also important to avoid misdiagnosis & subsequent treatment of Lyme disease when true cause of illness is something else.
Borrelia Burgdorferi bacteria causing Lyme disease spread through the bite of infected blacklegged deer ticks. The Ixodes Scapularis genus of ticks spread infection in northeastern, mid-Atlantic & north-central United States while Ixodes Pacificus spread disease along the Pacific Coast. These ticks can attach to any part of the human body but are often found to latch onto armpits, groin & scalp. But for the bacteria to cause Lyme infection, the tick must essentially attach for 36 – 48 hours or more. Ticks can neither fly nor jump but while questing on tips of grasses & shrubs for hosts, they can quickly climb aboard humans & animals.
Once attached, the tick feeding process makes them very good at transmitting infection.
Appropriate antibiotic treatments in early stages of Lyme disease usually enable patients recover rapidly & completely. Commonly used oral antibiotics at this stage include cefuroxime axetil, amoxicillin or doxycycline. Lyme disease patients suffering from certain cardiac or neurological illnesses may require intravenous treatments consisting of drugs like penicillin or ceftriaxone. However, one must carefully understand that prolonged antibiotic usage can have serious side effects & intravenous (IV) antibiotics usage must strictly be restricted to serious cases. Lyme Disease with arthritis can also be effectively treated with IV antibiotics. Lactating women & children younger than 9 years of age with Lyme disease are treated with penicillin or amoxicillin since doxycycline can stain permanent teeth in unborn babies & young children. Lyme disease patients who are allergic to penicillin are given erythromycin or other related antibiotics. Some doctors also prefer to treat Lyme infected patients experiencing heart symptoms with Rocephin, Claforan or penicillin which is intravenously given to them for about 2 weeks. In quite a few cases Lyme disease symptoms can also last for over 6 months. This chronic type of Lyme disease is medically known as Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome or PTLDS.
The exact cause Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome or PTLDS is unknown, but even after the recommended 2 – 4 weeks course of antibiotics some symptoms like pain, fatigue, or muscle & joint aches keep lingering on. Most Lyme disease experts agree that lingering symptoms are most likely the result of residual damage to tissues & immune system which occurred during infection. Long-term antibiotic treatments for Lyme infection have also been associated with serious complications. However, PTLDS has been almost always found to get better with time, but then this takes quite a few months to feel completely well. In case you have been treated for Lyme disease & you still feel unwell, it would be ideal to see the doctor & discuss ways to relieve suffering.
Minimizing exposure to ticks is the best defense against Lyme disease, especially if you are living in blacklegged tick infested regions. Taking preventive measures against ticks throughout the year is a good idea, but be extra vigilant in warmer months between April & September when ticks are found to be most active. Avoid brushy & wooded areas with leaf litter & high grass where you can come in direct contact with ticks. Walk in the center of trails & repel ticks with DEET or Permethrin applications.
Killing ticks on dogs is important. Use products that are available in market including sprays, impregnated collars, dusts or tropical treatments. Repellent products are also useful which prevent ticks from coming into contact with animals. Some repellents have anti-feeding effects whereby ticks coming into contact with the chemical will prevent them from biting.
No need to panic when you find a tick attached to your skin. Though several tick-removal devices are available in market, a simple set of fine-tipped tweezers can also remove ticks effectively.
In case you develop rash or fever within several weeks of removing ticks, be sure to meet your doctor & tell him about the recent tick bite including when it occurred & where you most likely picked up.
There is no substantial evidence suggesting Lyme infection can be spread from person-to-person, including sexual transmission. Moreover, no case of spread of Lyme disease as of now is linked to blood transfusion. Borrelia bacteria can however live inside blood from people with active infection stored for donation. Therefore it is advisable that patients who are under treatment for Lyme disease should not donate blood. Whereas, those patients who have completed antibiotic treatment for Lyme disease, may however be considered as potential donors of blood for transfusion.
FDA had approved a vaccine called LYMErix for Lyme disease in 1998. Even though few people reported falling sick from vaccination, FDA did not find any evidence that it was dangerous. Nevertheless, manufacturers decided to pull LYMErix off the market in February, 2002 due to poor sales. As of now, there is no vaccine available in the market for Lyme disease.
It is proved beyond doubt that most people suffering from Lyme disease respond well to antibiotic courses & completely recover. Although some cases show persistent symptoms or recurrence which makes further antibiotic treatment necessary, while left untreated, Lyme infection can cause permanent damage to heart, joints & nervous system. Moreover, successful treatment is no guarantee that Lyme disease will not occur in future. Lyme infection can strike more than once in same individual if they are bitten & re-infected by another tick carrying Lyme disease bacteria. Antibody tests conducted for Lyme disease also often remain positive for months to several years after infection. Therefore presence of antibodies in blood is insufficient reason to continue further treatment with antibiotics. Long-term prognosis for Lyme disease is that catching early is excellent. Though symptoms may last for months, early treatment increases chances that they may completely clear.