Sources predict that Lyme disease will be very common in the Northeast this year. New Jersey is in the danger zone, and multiple cases have already been reported, though the warmer seasons have barely begun. In addition to being on their guard, residents must also be aware of what to do in case they’ve been bitten. Because chronic Lyme disease has a long, varied list of symptoms common to other diseases, getting treatment as soon as possible is very important.
Last time on Tick Talk, we outlined what to do to prevent ticks and how to remove them safely. This time, we’re focusing on next steps in the event of a tick bite. Specifically, we’re focusing on potential symptoms and treatment options for Lyme Disease.
After removing a tick, cleaning the bite and keeping an eye on it, there are several things a person may notice happening. Redness around the site of a bite is normal for the first few days, as is warmth – the body is flooding the area with cells to help heal the wound, causing inflammation. The redness is only a problem if it lasts more than 5 days, at most; this is true for any wound, so a trip to the doctor in the second week wouldn’t be amiss if this happens, especially if you can’t see signs of healing. If the wound heals normally, and you don’t feel any symptoms, you’re in the clear!
The classic “bullseye rash” (erythema migrans) only happens in around 30% of cases, so don’t assume you’re not infected if you don’t see one (though you should be able to identify it if it does happen). A large, general rash may appear around the bite (usually with a dark outline), but there is commonly no rash, at all. I had the bullseye rash, but didn’t know what it meant, so I ignored it.
Aside from the bite healing slowly, the first signs of Lyme disease can feel similar to a flu – fever, body aches, weakness and swollen lymph nodes. If you’ve been bitten by a tick and begin to feel these symptoms, go to the doctor immediately. The sooner treatment starts, the less likely chronic Lyme is to develop. You will likely have blood drawn for an ELISA and/or Western Blot. These tests are designed to show antibody reactions to Lyme disease. If you have a certain number of reactions, you will be put on antibiotics for 28 to 90 days. Supplements such as probiotics can help with side effects of these treatments.
However, the ELISA and Western Blot tests are not always accurate. Patients can get a “false negative.” Clinical diagnosis through symptoms is currently the best way to identify Lyme infection outside of an independent laboratory. If symptoms persist despite preventative antibiotic treatment, a Lyme specialist (LLMD) can be found using this website (please read the entire page before searching). Not all LLMDs accept insurance, but they will give information about costs over the phone. The International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS) carries valuable information about treatment, as well.
Without treatment, Lyme disease will cause your immune system to over-react, which can cause the swelling of joints, and more flu-like symptoms. “Brain fog” can occur, along with confusion and grasping for words. A serious case can result in repeated serious illness. I have had chronic tonsillitis, pneumonia, seizures, permanent nerve damage and more. As with syphilis, Lyme can infect the brain. It’s a very serious disease, which is why prevention is so important. My treatment was long and difficult, and completely avoidable.
However, there’s no reason to stay cooped up; be cautious and take positive steps toward prevention, and you’ll be free to enjoy the warm weather as usual. Stay safe, New Jersey!