While Lyme disease is most prevalent in the Northeast region of the United States, there are now cases cropping up all over the country. In fact, 2017 is expected to be the worst year ever for Lyme disease. The reason for this may surprise you: mice.
Last summer, the Northeastern states experienced a "mouse plague" of sorts for a variety of reasons. Studies show that over the past 20 years, the more mice there are in a particular year, the more cases of Lyme occur the following year. Mice are responsible for infecting the majority of ticks with Lyme in the Northeast because they are highly efficient transmitters of Lyme disease, infecting about 95 percent of the ticks that feed on them, and ticks love mice. One mouse can be the host of up to 100 ticks at any given time, so naturally—with the increase in mice seen last summer—this summer is predicted to be a banner year for Lyme disease with all the newly infected ticks hanging around.
What do I need to know about Lyme disease?
Early Lyme disease is generally associated with nondescript symptoms like fatigue, chills, headache, and muscle aches, but the hallmark of early Lyme disease is a rash that has a bull's-eye pattern. However, studies show that this classic bull's-eye rash is only seen in about 20 percent of early Lyme cases as the rash often varies in appearance and some people may never even notice it.
If Lyme is not diagnosed and adequately treated in its early stage (the above alternative modes of transmission make that more difficult), the infection can go intracellular and form cysts that can remain dormant for many months or years. The symptoms may disappear and never return if the body's immune system remains healthy enough to suppress replication of the bacteria, but if the immune system can no longer contain the bacteria, the infection can disseminate throughout the body. This is now considered chronic Lyme and is much harder to both diagnose and treat.
What is chronic Lyme disease?
Chronic Lyme usually manifests months to years after an untreated (or even treated) initial infection but usually occurs in those who had no reason to believe that they ever had Lyme disease or ever had any history of being bitten by a tick. Symptoms may remain constant but more commonly they will appear intermittently. Most people don't associate their symptoms as being due to chronic Lyme due to the lack of association with a recent tick bite. Instead, they are often diagnosed with a wide range of conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraines, depression, seizures, bipolar disorder, psychosis, Lupus, Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS), multiple sclerosis, interstitial cystitis, autoimmune disease, and restless leg syndrome—just to name a few.
Those suffering at this stage of undiagnosed Lyme disease may also complain of symptoms with no seemingly identifiable cause. Such symptoms may include strange neurologic effects, severe sleep disorders, shortness of breath, muscle twitches, palpitations, memory problems, brain fog, panic attacks, and pelvic pain. The Lyme bacteria that were dormant for many years often reemerge during times of stress, such as with a divorce, death in the family, accident, surgery, or physical or emotional trauma, even if there was no previously known diagnosis of Lyme. This phenomenon often leads doctors away from considering Lyme disease as a potential culprit.
Why is Lyme disease so complicated?
Before you run out and get tested for Lyme because you suffer from one or more of the above conditions, you must know that it isn't that simple. The problem is that the testing to determine whether a patient is infected isn't always accurate, especially when it reaches the chronic stage. The standard tests that are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are shown to miss 20 to 70 percent of cases—showing a negative result when the infection is actually present. This is largely due to the fact that the tests are only accurate with intact immune systems, but Lyme disease suppresses and evades the immune system, making the tests inaccurate—especially for those with chronic Lyme disease who generally have the most immune dysfunction.
What can I do to protect myself?
The key to keeping yourself safe this summer is protection and diligence. If you've spent time outdoors (especially in the yard or in wooded areas) make sure to check your body for ticks. The easiest place to do this is in the shower. Ticks are tiny and great at hiding, so pay special attention to your scalp, behind the ears, groin area, and armpits (you may need a partner to do this thoroughly).
If you do find a tick, you should remove the tick as soon as possible but being careful to take out the entire tick. Studies have shown found that people who removed the tick by squeezing, crushing, or burning the insects were far more likely to develop Lyme disease than those who used the proper removal method: grasping the pest as close to the skin as possible with tweezers and then gently pulling it straight up. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. Because standard testing for Lyme disease in humans is less than ideal, as discussed above, it may be advisable to store the tick in a sealed container or medicine bottle to be able to test the tick directly by a specialized laboratory if needed.
Lyme disease can be a scary, but it shouldn't prevent you from embracing the the summer. By being diligent and knowing the facts about Lyme disease, you can empower yourself and truly enjoy your time outdoors.