Lyme Disease on the Rise: How You Can Protect Yourself

Smiling hikers in forest

This week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that Lyme disease is 10 times more common in the U.S. than we previously thought. They now estimate that a whopping 300,000 people are diagnosed yearly with this tick-borne disease, which causes symptoms including fatigue, headaches, joint and muscle pain, arthritis and neurologic damage. This is why I think it’s critical that you know what to look for and how to avoid this dangerous infection.

Not only is Lyme disease more common than we thought, rates of it are also growing. Cases of Lyme disease increased 77% from 2001 to 2010. Though the vast majority of cases occur in 13 states clustered mostly in the east and north of the country, in the past 10 years cases have been documented in every state except for Hawaii.

You can blame the spread of this terrible disease on the bite of the common deer tick. These easy-to-miss bugs, which are usually about the size of a poppy seed, act as hosts for Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria responsible for Lyme. These ticks can bite you without you even noticing, but usually can’t transmit the bacteria until they have been attached for at least 36 hours. Removing the tick before that time window makes it unlikely that you will catch the disease. Remember that while not all deer ticks will carry the bacteria, the most dangerous times of year are April through September.

It can take weeks, or even months, before you might know you’re infected with Lyme disease. One of the earliest signs of Lyme is a slowly-enlarging rash called erythema migrans. This rash pops up over the site of the tick bite and looks like a bullseye, with a dark center and a larger ring around it. It can appear 3 to 30 days after the bite, and may or may not be itchy. Although it occurs in up to 80% of people with Lyme disease, many people do not notice this rash until it has disappeared, which takes days to weeks.

Early signs and symptoms tend to be vague and nonspecific and may include fatigue, headaches, neck stiffness, muscle aches, joint pains, swollen lymph nodes and fever. Respiratory symptoms or digestive upset are uncommon and point away from Lyme. As the disease progresses over weeks, people can also develop nerve palsies such as Bell’s palsy, in which half of the face becomes paralyzed, meningitis, nerve pain or balance problems. Lyme can even interfere with the electrical conduction in your heart and cause arrhythmias.

If infection persists for months to years without being treated, late stage disease can develop. In 60% of people, this can include arthritis, with joint pain and swelling usually in large joints, often the knee. This can eventually lead to bone and joint erosion. People may also get shooting pains, memory problems, or strange sensations and numbness in their arms or legs due to nerve damage.

Careful vigilance is key to preventing Lyme. Catching and removing the tick early using proper technique will dramatically decrease your chance of contracting the disease. Here are some simple tips to help reduce your risk:

  • If you’re outside in grassy or wooded areas where ticks like to live, keep covered with closed-toed shoes, socks, long sleeves and long pants. Light-colored clothing will help you identify ticks faster.
  • Using tick repellent containing 20-30% DEET on skin and clothing may help protect you for several hours, but be careful not to get it near your eyes or mouth.
  • Shower within two hours after returning inside from outdoor activities. Before they bite, ticks like to explore your body for a good place to latch on, and you might be able to wash them off before they attach.
  • Check yourself (and your pets) frequently for ticks. Don’t forget hidden spaces like your groin, armpits, backs of your legs, scalp, ears between your toes and around waistbands or bra straps. Ticks especially like dark, moist places. You can also recruit a partner or use a hand-held mirror to help you check hard-to-see places.
  • To remove a tick safely, get a pair of fine tweezers and grab the tick as close to the skin as possible, where its head is attached. Pull straight upwards with steady pressure. Pull too fast and the tick’s mouth parts may remain in your skin – if this happens, remove the left-over bits with the tweezers. Afterwards, clean the area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine wash or soap and water. Do not burn off a tick, cover it with petroleum jelly or nail polish, as these techniques could up your chance of getting Lyme. Flushing the tick down the toilet is a good way to make sure it doesn’t come hunting for you again.
  • If you notice a target-like rash or have any symptoms after being bitten by a tick or spending time in a wooded area, be sure to go see your doctor to be tested and, if necessary, treated.