How To Tell If You Have Lyme Disease

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lyme disease

Happily, spring is coming! Unhappily, ticks and Lyme disease are also on the way.

Many of our parents, especially those who spend a lot of time outdoors with their children, are concerned about tick bites and have asked for guidelines to prevent Lyme disease, as well as ways to tell if they or their children have contracted it. I’ll discuss both issues here, and offer helpful advice for both.

How do you get Lyme disease?

Gina Leylegian 1bR retouch WEB72

Georgina Leylegian, MD

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection called Borrelia burgdorferi, primarily transmitted by deer ticks, typically found in wooded and grassy areas. Not all ticks are infected, and only females can transmit Lyme. The disease affects people of all ages but is most common in children, older adults and people who spend time outdoors. Lyme disease can affect any organ of the body, including the brain, nervous system, muscles, joints and heart.

Most people get Lyme from the bite of the nymphal, or immature, form of the deer tick, about the size of a poppy seed. Because they are so tiny and their bite is rarely felt, most people do not even realize they have been bitten. Once a tick has attached, it can feed for several days if undisturbed. The longer it stays attached, the more likely it will transmit Lyme disease and other pathogens into your bloodstream.

Early signs and symptoms (3-30 days after tick bite)

  • Fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, swollen lymph nodes
  • “Bulls-eye” rash (occurs in approximately 70-80% of infected persons) at the site of the bite after, on average, 7 days
  • Rash expands gradually, reaching up to 12 inches or more across
  • May feel warm to the touch but is rarely itchy or painful
  • Rash may appear on any area of the body

Later signs and symptoms (several days to months after tick bite)

  • Severe headaches and neck stiffness
  • Additional rashes on other areas of the body
  • Arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling, particularly in the knees and other large joints
  • Facial or Bell’s palsy (loss of muscle tone or droop on one or both sides of the face)
  • Intermittent pain in tendons, muscles, joints, and bones
  • Heart palpitations or an irregular heart beat (Lyme carditis)
  • Episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath
  • Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
  • Nerve pain
  • Shooting pains, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
  • Problems with short-term memory

How to avoid getting Lyme disease

While it is a good idea to take preventive measures against tick bites year-round, you should be extra vigilant in warmer months (April-September) when ticks are most active. Ticks are out and about and ready to bite you, or your pets, whenever the temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

To avoid being bitten, follow these simple guidelines:

1. Avoid direct contact with ticks

  • Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter
  • Walk in the center of trails

2. Find and remove ticks from your body

  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors (preferably within 2 hours) to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.
  • Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body upon return from tick-infested areas. Parents should check their children for ticks under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and especially in their hair.
  • Examine gear and pets. Ticks can come into your home on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later, so carefully examine pets, coats and backpacks.
  • Tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill remaining ticks.

3. Remove attached ticks quickly and correctly

Remove an attached tick with fine-tipped tweezers as soon as you notice it. If a tick is attached to your skin for less than 24 hours, your chance of getting Lyme disease is extremely small.

4. Be on the lookout for fever or rash

An unexpected summer fever, odd rash or flu-like symptoms may be the first signs of Lyme disease, particularly if you’ve been where ticks are active. See your physician or your child’s pediatrician immediately.

5. Prevent ticks on animals

Prevent family pets from bringing ticks into your home by limiting their access to tick-infested areas and by using veterinarian-prescribed tick collars or other treatment.

6. Create tick-safe zones in your yard

Keep patios, play areas and playground equipment away from shrubs, bushes and other vegetation. Regularly remove leaves, tall grass and brush around your home, and place wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas to keep ticks away from these areas (and away from you).

  • Use a chemical control agent. Effective tick control chemicals are available for homeowners to use, or a professional pest control expert can apply them.
  • Discourage deer. Deer are the main food source of adult ticks. Keep deer away from your property by removing plants that attract them and/or by building barriers or fencing to keep them out.

If you think your child has Lyme disease, please come see us

If you suspect your child may have contracted Lyme disease, please make an appointment with Westchester Health Pediatrics to see one of our pediatric specialists for an accurate diagnosis and immediate treatment. The sooner we can begin treatment, the faster we can thwart the disease and prevent long-lasting consequences.

By Georgina Leylegian, MD, a pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics.

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About the Author: ML Ball