Nancy A. Shadick, MD, MPH
Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. Lyme disease can cause symptoms and illness of the skin, heart, joints, or neurologic system so it's important for it to be detected early and treated with antibiotics so that people do not get ill.
Lyme disease is primarily focused in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and regions of the Pacific Northwest though you can contract it in other parts of the country. By far, the most common seasons to develop Lyme disease are spring, summer, and fall.
There are a lot of things that you can do to prevent getting bitten by a tick, ranging from avoiding tick areas such as the brush, tall grasses, or forests with lots of leaf litter. You can wear long sleeves and long pants with your pants tucked into your socks to prevent a tick bite. You can spray something called permethrin on your clothes to keep a tick from biting you or you can use DEET, which is in many insect repellents, to repel ticks from biting you. You should also wear light colored clothing so that you can see a tick if it does bite you.
Doing a tick check promptly after exposure to potential tick bites or tick areas is very important. This should be done by completely removing your clothes, throwing them into the dryer, and putting the dryer on high for 10 minutes to kill the ticks on your clothes. Then you should do a full body check. When you do a full body check, you should not only look for ticks, which can be as small as a poppy seed, you should also feel your arms, and legs, and other areas where a tick may have bitten you. You should feel for a poppy seed-like feeling and then look and see if that is a tick.
The proper technique for removing a tick that has bitten you is to take fine-tooth tweezers, place the tweezers right at the entry point of the tick, grasp the tick and pull straight out. If you don't remove all of the tick, you can try one or two more times. Usually most of the tick comes out once you grab it with the tweezers. If you know that the tick has been on you for less than 24 hours then you can feel relatively confident that you will not contract Lyme disease or another tick-borne illness since it takes a minimum of 24 hours of attachment for the tick to transmit the bacteria.
Overwhelmingly, the rash of Lyme disease is characterized by the fact that it spreads. So if you have a red, ring-like rash that spreads, it's very likely that it is Lyme disease.
If you don't develop a rash from Lyme disease, you can still develop meningitis or neuritis, such as Bell's palsy, which is facial paralysis. You can also develop a Lyme arthritis which is, in the beginning, a migratory joint pain and joint swelling.
Unfortunately, Lyme disease can also cause cardiac abnormalities, most likely rhythm difficulties in the heart, such as heart block, dizziness with palpitations, or a slow heart. Any of these symptoms of Lyme disease should be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible so you can get treatment.
Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics of several weeks duration by mouth or several weeks duration intravenously.
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