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How Lyme Disease is Passed from Pest to You

A tick walks along a blade of grass held by an adult hand

Playing around in wooded areas is fun during warm summer days. However, ticks are lurking ready to hop on and dig in. These small bugs like burrowing in the warm areas of your body and carry a bacteria, which could result in Lyme disease. Kelli Miller, ANP, UnityPoint Health, explains what causes Lyme disease, how to identify it, how to treat it and the best ways to protect your family.

What Ticks Carry Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is an infection caused by bacteria transmitted from the bite of a blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick. These ticks are one of three varieties of ticks commonly found in the United States. They are much smaller in size than the other two varieties: the dog tick and the lone star tick.

“The tick that causes Lyme disease becomes active in mid-May, peaks in activity in June and becomes less active in late July,” Miller says. “Lyme disease onset occurs mainly during the summer months of June, July and August, since the period between the tick bite and the onset of the disease is approximately two to three weeks.

The Lyme Disease Tick Bite

Ticks usually take up to 24 hours from the time of first contact before they actually start to feed on the host’s blood. Miller says the tick must remain firmly attached to the skin for 48 to 72 hours to pass the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

The most common sites for tick bites include:

  • Head
  • Neck
  • Arms
  • Legs
  • Back
  • Abdomen
  • Underarms
  • Chest
  • Groin

Lyme Disease Symptoms by Stage

Lyme disease symptoms in adults vary widely from person to person but are all caused by the body’s inflammatory response to the bacteria. The disease has different stages.

Stage 1: Early Localized Lyme Disease

“During the early stage, Lyme disease can cause nonspecific, virus-like signs and symptoms, including fatigue, fever, headache, muscle pain, joint pain and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms may or may not present with a rash,” Miller says.

Miller adds the rash sometime associated with Lyme disease is called erythema migrans and usually occurs within seven to 14 days.

“The Lyme disease rash is usually pink to red-colored. The color may cover the entire bite or may have an area in the center that is flesh-colored. In some cases, the rash consists of multiple rings, giving it a bull’s eye appearance,” Miller says.

Stage 2: Early Disseminated Lyme Disease

As the disease advances into a second, more advanced stage, Miller says the bacteria spreads through the bloodstream to other areas of the body, triggering inflammation in different tissues. This stage usually occurs during the first few months.

“Cardiac symptoms can occur due to inflammation of the cardiac tissue and may interfere with the electrical impulses throughout the heart, causing a slower than normal heart rate, lightheadedness and fainting. There could be neurological symptoms caused by inflammation of the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord, also known as meninges, which could cause headache, neck stiffness, numbness and tingling to extremities,” Miller says.

Stage 3: Late Disseminated Lyme Disease

As the disease progresses into late stage over the course of several months to years, inflammation often targets the joints or nervous system. Miller says victims might notice muscle and joint pain or arthritis. Inflammation of the nervous system could include difficulty with memory, thinking or numbness and tingling to the extremities.

Lyme Disease Diagnosis & Treatment

Your provider will consider three things when trying to identify a Lyme disease diagnosis.

  • Recent exposure to ticks
  • Presence of symptoms
  • Blood test for Lyme disease

Once a diagnosis is confirmed, Miller says antibiotics are the primary treatment course. She says the most important thing to remember is Lyme disease is curable.

“The treatment for Lyme disease varies depending upon the stage of disease and the types of symptoms. The rate of recovery may also vary depending upon the stage of disease and the types of symptoms. Recovery may take weeks to months after finishing the antibiotic for Lyme disease,” Miller says.

Tick Prevention

If you are going into an area with ticks, Miller provides these suggestions.

  • Wear a light-colored, long-sleeved shirt
  • Wear long pants and tuck the pant legs into socks
  • Keep clothes snug fitting
  • Cover hair with a hat
  • Keep long hair pulled up into a ponytail
  • Use an insect repellent according to manufacturer’s guidelines

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