May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month
Margo Kerrigan, M.P.H., Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office
May is designated as Lyme Disease Awareness Month. Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that is spread to humans through the bite of infected ticks. Left untreated, Lyme disease can progress from mild flu-like symptoms in the early stages to severe chronic and debilitating health problems in later stages. Caught early, Lyme disease can be fairly easily treated with a course of antibiotics.
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States and is one of the fastest growing infectious diseases. Between 1992 and 2008, there was a 192% increase in the number of cases of Lyme disease reported to the CDC, from 9,908 cases in 1992 to 28,921 confirmed cases in 2008. In California, the ticks that carry Lyme disease have been found in 56 of the 58 counties and ticks infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease have been found in 42 counties.
Usually one of the first symptoms of Lyme disease is a "bull's eye" rash that occurs at the site of the tick bite. This rash, called erythema migrans, occurs in 70-80% of persons infected with the disease. The rash usually occurs within 3 and 30 days of the tick bite. Infected persons may also experience mild flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, chills, fever, headaches, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. In the small percentage of patients who do not display the "bull's eye" rash, these may be the only initial symptoms of the disease.
Left untreated, Lyme disease will spread to other portions of the body, usually within a few days to a few weeks from infection. This mid-stage of infection can cause more severe symptoms such as heart palpitations, dizziness, joint pain, and severe headaches and neck pain due to meningitis. In some patients, these symptoms will resolve without treatment, but for approximately 60% of those with the disease, without treatment the infection will progress to cause severe joint pain and swelling (arthritis) within a few months to a few years of infection. Other late-stage symptoms include chronic neurological symptoms such as shooting pains, numbness in arms and legs, and memory and concentration problems.
Patients who receive antibiotic treatment for Lyme disease early in the infection usually have a fast and full recovery. A few patients who receive treatment in mid- or late-stage disease may have recurring symptoms due to joint or nerve damage that has occurred. For best outcomes, anyone suspecting they have may been infected by Lyme disease should see their doctor immediately for testing and treatment. Prevention: The following are precautions and steps you can take to avoid Lyme disease infection:
- Avoid areas with lots of ticks, such as wooded or bushy areas and areas with tall grass or fallen leaves.
- Use insect repellent that contains 20%-30% DEET on skin and clothing.
- Wear long pants, long sleeves, and long socks to protect skin. Also tucking your pants into your socks can prevent ticks from getting on your legs.
- After being outdoors, check yourself for ticks. Especially check your armpits, scalp, and groin which are areas ticks can easily hide.
- If you find a tick, use fine-tipped tweezers to remove it immediately. A tick that has been attached to your skin for less than 24 hours is not likely to cause infection, but monitor for symptoms closely just in case.
For more information, visit:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/lyme/index.htm
California Department of Public Health: http://www.cdph.ca.gov/HEALTHINFO/DISCOND/Pages/LymeDisease.aspx
American Lyme Disease Foundation: http://www.aldf.com/
Lyme Disease Network: http://www.lymenet.org/