American Osteopathic Association

Advancing the distinctive philosophy and practice of osteopathic medicine

Detecting the Signs of Lyme Disease

Girls hikingThat bug bite from your last camping trip might not be as harmless as you think. Specifically, if you were bitten by a blacklegged tick carrying Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, that one bite can lead to years of trauma, from temporary muscle paralysis to memory problems and even meningitis. While antibiotics can cure most cases of Lyme disease, it is imperative to get a proper diagnosis in the early stages of the disease; the sooner the treatment begins, the quicker the recovery. Carol L. Henwood, DO, an osteopathic family physician from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, tells us how to recognize the signs of Lyme disease and provides tips on how to avoid being bitten in tick-infested areas.

Most people who are bitten by a tick do not get Lyme disease, but for the ones who are bitten by an infected tick and experience symptoms of the disease, early diagnosis is the key to avoiding complications.

Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, look beyond your symptoms to understand how lifestyle and environmental factors affect your wellbeing. They listen and partner with you to help you get healthy and stay well. They also encourage your body’s natural tendency toward self-healing.

What are the common symptoms of Lyme disease?

“If you discover that you’ve been bitten by a tick, the first sign of Lyme disease will appear in the shape of a red circular ‘bull’s eye’ skin rash, often with a clear area in the center,” explains Dr. Henwood. “Usually, several weeks after the bite, this rash can expand, but will subside after a week or two,” she adds.

Lyme disease is easy to treat if it is caught in the first few weeks; however, according to Dr. Henwood, the disease is often misdiagnosed, as the symptoms are similar to a range of common illnesses, such as the flu and arthritis. “Subsequent symptoms such as high temperature, tiredness, muscle pain and joint swelling, which can develop within days or weeks of infection, should ring warning bells,” says Dr. Henwood. She advises contacting your health care provider if you notice any of the following signs:

  • Body-wide itching
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Light-headedness
  • Muscle pain or stiff neck
  • Decreased concentration or memory problems
  • Numbness or paralysis of the face muscles
  • Sleep disorders
  • Vision problems

“Your health care provider can diagnose Lyme disease by reviewing these clinical signs and utilizing a blood test to check for Lyme antibodies in the blood. In extreme cases where the infection has spread, they might take an MRI of the brain, use an electrocardiogram to look at the heart, or perform a spinal tap,” explains Dr. Henwood. Lyme disease can usually be treated successfully with standard antibiotics. “However, if left untreated, the disease can spread to the brain, heart and joints causing encephalitis, meningitis, muscle pain, loss of memory, and in rare cases, death,” she points out.

How can you protect yourself against tick bites?

The risk of tick bites and, therefore, Lyme disease increases with exposure to wooded, brushy or overgrown, grassy areas. In most cases, a tick carrying the Lyme disease bacterium must be attached to your body for 24-36 hours to spread the bacteria to your blood. “Ticks are very small and can easily be overlooked, so it is important to check regularly for attached ticks on the skin and remove attached ones with care using tweezers, grasping it close to the skin,” advises Dr. Henwood. She urges outdoor enthusiasts to:

  • Avoid wooded or bushy areas with high grasses and leaf litter.

  • Walk in the center of trails.

  • Inspect the skin frequently and carefully during and after walks or hikes.

  • Spray all exposed skin and clothing with insect repellent when walking or hiking in wooded or grassy areas.

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers tucked into socks.

  • Bathe the skin and scalp, and wash clothing upon returning home from a tick-infested area.

Last Words on Lyme Disease

Dr. Henwood urges people to take precautions to reduce their risk of contracting Lyme disease. “Being active outdoors is great for our health, but taking some simple precautions can help keep you and your family safe from tick bites and reduce the risk of Lyme disease. Staying aware of bug bites and changes to your skin can make all the difference to your long-term health.”

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