Ok, I have had said it a million times – spring is upon us! We must prepare for all those things that come with beautiful weather, sunny skies, and green grass. One problem in the south is ticks. As the song says, “I want to check you for ticks”. While it may not be the intention of the song, this is very important in the fight against Lyme disease. Due to a mild winter, ticks are expected to be worse than ever.
Although ticks are commonly thought of as insects, they are actually arachnids like scorpions, spiders and mites. All members of this group have four pairs of legs as adults and have no antennae. Adult insects have three pairs of legs and one pair of antennae. Ticks are among the most efficient carriers of disease because they attach firmly when sucking blood, feed slowly and may go unnoticed for a considerable time while feeding. Ticks take several days to complete feeding.
Ticks wait for host animals from the tips of grasses and shrubs (not from trees). When brushed by a moving animal or person, they quickly let go of the vegetation and climb onto the host. Ticks can only crawl; they cannot fly or jump. Ticks found on the scalp have usually crawled there from lower parts of the body. Some species of ticks will crawl several feet toward a host. Ticks can be active on winter days when the ground temperatures are about 45o Fahrenheit.
Lyme Disease Transmission
The Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, is spread through the bite of infected ticks. The blacklegged tick (or deer tick) spreads the disease in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and north-central United States, and the western blacklegged tick spreads the disease on the Pacific Coast.
Ticks can attach to any part of the human body but are often found in hard-to-see areas such as the groin, armpits, and scalp. In most cases, the tick must be attached for 36-48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted.
Most humans are infected through the bites of immature ticks called nymphs. Nymphs are tiny (less than 2 mm) and difficult to see; they feed during the spring and summer months. Adult ticks can also transmit Lyme disease bacteria, but they are much larger and may be more likely to be discovered and removed before they have had time to transmit the bacteria. Adult ticks are most active during the cooler months of the year.
Signs and Symptoms of Lyme Disease
3-30 Days After Tick Bite
- Red, expanding rash called erythema migrans (EM) – a “bull’s eye” rash
- Fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes
Some people may get these general symptoms in addition to an EM rash, but in others, these general symptoms may be the only evidence of infection.
Some people get a small bump or redness at the site of a tick bite that goes away in 1-2 days, like a mosquito bite. This is not a sign that you have Lyme disease. However, ticks can spread other organisms that may cause a different type of rash.
Days to Weeks After Tick Bite
Untreated, the infection may spread from the site of the bite to other parts of the body, producing an array of specific symptoms that may come and go, including:
- Additional EM lesions in other areas of the body
- Facial or Bell’s palsy (loss of muscle tone on one or both sides of the face)
- Severe headaches and neck stiffness due to meningitis (inflammation of the spinal cord)
- Pain and swelling in the large joints (such as knees)
- Shooting pains that may interfere with sleep
- Heart palpitations and dizziness due to changes in heartbeat
Many of these symptoms will resolve over a period of weeks to months, even without treatment2.However, lack of treatment can result in additional complications, like: Bell’s Palsy – which is a loss of muscle tone of one side of the face.
Months to Years After Tick Bite:
Approximately 60% of patients with untreated infection may begin to have intermittent bouts of arthritis, with severe joint pain and swelling. Large joints are most often affected, particularly the knees. Arthritis caused by Lyme disease manifests differently than other causes of arthritis and must be distinguished from arthralgias (pain, but not swelling, in joints).
Up to 5% of untreated patients may develop chronic neurological complaints months to years after infection4. These include shooting pains, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, and problems with short-term memory.
How is Lyme Disease Diagnosed and Treated?
Lyme disease is diagnosed based on:
- Signs and symptoms
- A history of possible exposure to infected blacklegged ticks
Laboratory tests are not recommended for patients who do not have symptoms typical of Lyme disease. Just as it is important to correctly diagnose Lyme disease when a patient has it, it is important to avoid misdiagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease when the true cause of the illness is something else.
If you have recently had a tick bite, live in an area known for Lyme disease or have recently traveled to an area where it occurs, and observe any of these symptoms, you should see your health care provider.
Coming up tomorrow….. How to remove a tick the correct way! Living in the south I have heard of a thousand ways from burning them, to suffocating them, to helping them back out. So, tomorrow I will tell you how I recommend a tick be removed if found.