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Lyme disease is an often overlooked pathogen spread by ticks. In most cases it will cause flu-like symptoms before the body clears the infection. But doctors are beginning to realize that many people experience potentially debilitating long-term effects as a consequence of a Lyme infection.

What causes Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is caused by the corkscrew-shaped Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, which is caused by ticks. When a tick latches on to suck your blood, it can release the bacterium into your blood stream. The bacteria then spread throughout the body, migrating into joints and connective tissue, sometimes infecting the heart, brain and nervous system.

Which ticks carry the disease?

Backlegged ticks or deer ticks are the primary carriers of Lyme disease.

How common is Lyme disease?

There are around 30,000 Lyme infections reported in the U.S. each year, but the CDC and other infectious disease specialists estimate the actual number to be about 10-times as high, or roughly 300,000 cases. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, it’s believed that the prevalence of Lyme disease is increasing, and has doubled or even tripled from what it was just a decade ago.

How to tell if you have Lyme disease:
The signs & symptoms of a Lyme infection

The tell-tale sign of Lyme disease is the infamous bulls-eye shaped rash around the bite site. Yet not all people with a Lyme infection develop the ring-shaped rash. Some develop a more diffuse rash, and 20-30% of people infected with Lyme never experience any type of rash at all. Lyme disease can also induce the following flu-like symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Body chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Joint pain or stiffness

How long before symptoms show up?
Symptoms of Lyme disease typically emerge anywhere from 3 to 30 days after the bite.

Testing for Lyme disease

There are tests you can get from your doctor that will detect Lyme disease. The problem is they are often ineffective. Once bitten, it can take anywhere from days to weeks for the bacteria to enter blood vessels and begin being circulated throughout the body. The antibodies that the Lyme test depends on won’t be manufactured until this happens. After 3 weeks from the date of the bite a test might pick up an infection, but it can take up to 6 weeks in many people for the markers of the disease to reach a detectable level. By that time the infection may have spread throughout the body, possibly leading to long-term effects.

Treating Lyme disease

Lyme disease can be treated with a basic course of antibiotics. This is most effective when treated in its early stages, before the bacteria have had a chance to colonize the entire body. Once that happens, there’s the potential for long-term consequences. Thus if you’re showing any symptoms of Lyme, or even as a precautionary measure after suffering a tick bite, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and seek treatment.

The potential long-term effects & consequences of Lyme disease

Many people infected with Lyme will clear the infection all on their own without any long-term effects. Which is why for many years doctors treated Lyme disease as little more than an afterthought. Lately, however, we’ve come to realize that a certain subset of the population can develop lasting, sometimes debilitating long-term symptoms as a consequence of Lyme disease.

Left untreated, Lyme can spread throughout other tissues in the body, damaging skin, joints, and the nervous system. It can lead to arthritis, result in heart palpitations, and cause brain inflammation, making people feel foggy-headed or even result in dementia-like symptoms. Many sufferers of Lyme disease experience chronic nerve pain or facial palsy.

There are an untold number of Americans suffering from chronic pain caused by Lyme infections. This could be due to a genetic vulnerability or some other variable or happenstance. Since there’s no way to tell who will recover fully and who might develop lasting symptoms, it’s best to be proactive when dealing with Lyme disease.

Preventing Lyme disease

A vaccine against Lyme disease was available in the 19190’s but was taken off the market after just four years due to low sales and unsubstantiated fears that the vaccine caused arthritis. New vaccines are on the way, but as of March 2024, were not yet available. So currently, the best way to prevent it is to be proactive when it comes to ticks and tick bites. (See our page on tick-transmitted infections for tips & guidelines on how to protect yourself from Lyme disease.)

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