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The Truth Behind Lyme Disease

The Truth Behind Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is a common tick-borne illness and, if unidentified or untreated, it can have serious health consequences.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if you are diagnosed with a vector-borne disease in the United States, it is most likely to be Lyme disease. In fact, nearly half a million people are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year in the U.S.

Although Lyme disease is not as common in Santa Barbara County as it is in other parts of the country, it is still important to be aware of the condition and be vigilant when traveling and spending time outdoors.

Read on to learn more about Lyme disease and how our services at Lompoc Valley Medical Center can help you stay safe as you enjoy spending time in nature.

What is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness, meaning that it can be transmitted to humans when they are bitten by infected ticks, most commonly the western blacklegged tick. The culprit bacteria when it comes to Lyme disease is usually Borrelia burgdorferi, though other bacterial species have been identified. When a person contracts Lyme disease, they can progress through three stages of the disease: an initial localized stage, an initial systemic stage, and a late stage.

What Causes Lyme Disease?

When an infected tick bites a human and remains latched for a lengthy period (usually more than 24 hours), it can pass along infectious particles that get into a person’s bloodstream and cause disease. Lyme disease is not thought to be spread via other means, such as human-to-human contact, or consumption of host animals infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria.

What Are the Symptoms of Lyme Disease?

Many people who are bitten by a tick are unaware of the bite, and they may not notice any initial symptoms of Lyme disease. However, here are the most common symptoms of Lyme disease, when broken down by stages.

Early localized symptoms (usually within 7-14 days of a bite but always within the first month)

  • A bullseye-like rash, known as erythema migrans (EM). This may burn or itch and appears in the place where the tick bite occurred, in about 80 percent of people. This rash may start small and then expand over the course of days or weeks.
  • Flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, appetite decrease, headache, neck stiffness, joint pain, muscle pain, or fever.

Early systemic symptoms (within weeks to months after a bite)

  • Multiple EM lesions
  • Neurologic symptoms such as nerve palsies (especially involving the face), nerve pain, numbness, difficulty walking
  • Heart palpitations, lightheadedness, or irregular heartbeat due to cardiac inflammation
  • Eye symptoms, such as inflammation, pain, or visual changes

Late-stage Lyme disease (months to years after initial infection)

  • Joint pain (especially involving the knee) from Lyme arthritis
  • Subtle cognitive changes from brain inflammation known as Lyme encephalopathy
  • Skin rashes

How is Lyme Disease Diagnosed?

Lyme disease can usually be diagnosed clinically in the initial stage, meaning that a medical provider can make a diagnosis by taking a careful history and conducting a physical exam. The characteristic rash, paired with a likely story of a tick bite (or physical identification of the tick), usually seals the diagnosis.

However, if the initial rash is not noticed, the diagnosis of Lyme disease may be more prolonged or overlooked. If Lyme disease is suspected but a rash is not present, a clinician can make the diagnosis using specific antibody blood tests.

What Other Conditions Are Commonly Confused With Lyme Disease?

The Lyme disease rash may be confused with other types of rashes, such as erythema multiforme, psoriasis, nummular eczema, ringworm, other insect bites, drug reactions. The vague symptoms of systemic Lyme disease, such as fatigue, can be confused with viral illnesses.

Who is Most Likely To Get Lyme Disease?

People who live in areas populated with blacklegged ticks and spend a considerable amount of time outside in woodland areas without proper insect protection measures are more likely to get Lyme disease.

How is Lyme Disease Treated?

If a person notices a tick bite and is within 72 hours of the bite without the development of a rash, Lyme disease can be prevented using a single dose of an antibiotic.

In the initial localized stage of Lyme disease, when a person has developed the signature rash, Lyme disease can be treated using an antibiotic course taken over a series of days. This treatment completely resolves symptoms in about 90 percent of patients.

Similarly, in initial systemic and late stages, Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics (either oral or intravenous), though the course of the medication is typically longer for these stages.

What if Lyme Disease Isn’t Treated?

If Lyme disease is not identified or treated, a person can experience dangerous heart arrhythmias. Though rare, these can be fatal.

How to Prevent Lyme Disease

Although it is an intimidating illness, you have a lot of control in the fight against Lyme disease. Being aware of your surroundings, especially if you are spending time in forested areas where ticks are more likely to be present, is key.

The Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) provides the following additional tips for preventing tick bites and Lyme disease:

  • Wear a hat to prevent ticks from hiding in your hair.
  • Wear an insect repellent such as DEET, oil of lemon, or permethrin.
  • Wear long sleeves and pants to reduce the likelihood of getting a tick bite, and tuck your pants into your socks.
  • Wear light-colored clothing to help you more easily identify the presence of ticks.
  • Conduct a self-inspection after outdoor activities to make sure you do not have a tick that is latched to your skin.
  • Bathe within two hours of outdoor activities.

Additionally, the IDSA recommends removing ticks attached to the skin as soon as they are identified, using a fine-tipped tweezer.

How to Learn More About Lyme Disease

To learn more about Lyme disease, or to have an evaluation for potential Lyme disease, contact our primary care team at Lompoc Valley Medical Center today. You can also visit the California Department of Public Health’s Lyme disease center for more information.