What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is a disease that is caused by a bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi). It is commonly found in North America and Europe. It is spread by deer ticks. Deer ticks bite and feed on the blood of animals and on humans. When they bite an animal that is infected with the bacteria and then bite a human, the bacteria can be transferred to the human through the blood.
You’re more likely to get Lyme disease if you live or spend time areas where deer ticks live, such as heavily wooded areas.
Lyme disease can be prevented and treated
The skin and joint problems are early warning signs for Lyme disease. The skin rash usually appears in 3-14 days after a tick bite. A small red bump will enlarge and have a red ring with a clear area in the center. It looks like a bull’s-eye and is called a “target” lesion.
The medical term for this rash is erythema migrans and is a classic finding in Lyme disease. There may be a single target lesion or multiple lesions.
The joint problems usually appear 2-4 weeks after the infection. This involves joint swelling and pain, especially in the knees. Other early warning signs may include flu-like symptoms and severe fatigue.
For you to get Lyme disease, an infected deer tick must bite you and deposit the bacteria into your blood. The bacteria enter your skin through the bite and eventually make their way into your bloodstream. In order to do this, often an infected tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours. If you find a tick on you, remove it at once and ask your doctor what to do next.
Why should I care about Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is very common in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where deer ticks are plentiful. Left untreated, Lyme disease can cause:
Chronic joint pain, swelling and inflammation, especially of the knees
Nerve involvement causing facial drooping, severe headaches, and general nerve pain
Impaired memory and ability to think appropriately
Heart problems that can be very serious including irregular heartbeats
Eye irritation and inflammation
Liver inflammation (hepatitis)
Chronic severe fatigue
Erythema migrans rash
How is Lyme disease diagnosed?
Lyme disease can be diagnosed by a patient’s history of exposure to a biting tick or by a list of symptoms and being in an environment with a large deer tick population. There are several tests your doctor can run to determine if you have Lyme disease, including an ELISA test, Western blot test and PCR test. Your doctor will recommend the best test for your situation.
How can Lyme disease be prevented?
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to avoid areas where deer ticks live, such as heavily wooded areas or areas with lots of tall grass. If you find yourself in such areas, you can greatly reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease with these simple recommendations:
Wear protective clothing that covers your skin.
Use insect/tick repellents that contain DEET.
Check yourself, your family, your friends and your pets for ticks after spending time in wooded areas or areas with tall grass.
Remove any tick as soon as possible with tweezers.
How is Lyme disease treated?
Oral (and sometimes IV) antibiotics are the treatment of choice for Lyme disease. Your physician will recommend the best course of treatment for you if you have the disease. Early treatment is the most effective.
Remember, if you find a tick on you or play in areas where deer ticks are common and you feel fatigued, develop flu-like symptoms, or have joint pain, call your doctor for additional evaluation. Only a small percent of people who get bitten by a tick get Lyme disease, but it is important to play it safe.
It’s important to check with your physician even if the symptoms disappear, because the disease can still develop. Lyme disease is easily treated, but left untreated it can be devastating and have problems that occur or last for years down the road.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.