In recent years, many celebrities have opened up about battling Lyme disease, including Yolanda, Anwar, and Bella Hadid, Kelly Osbourne, and Avril Lavigne. But unfortunately, the tick-borne illness is still widely confusing, with patients often struggling for years before being properly diagnosed.
Summer may be ending soon, but ticks are active year round. And since Lyme disease is still so misunderstood, many people think all cases are easily cured with a course of antibiotics. But if left untreated, Lyme disease can develop into what is known as chronic Lyme disease or late-stage Lyme disease.
HelloGiggles spoke with a few Lyme literate experts to get the scoop on the less commonly-known facts about Lyme disease and why it’s a continually growing epidemic.
1What are some less-known symptoms of Lyme disease?
A common misconception with Lyme disease is that when someone is bit by a tick, they quickly see a “bullseye rash” at the site of the tick bite, which they can show to their doctor and receive a standard course of antibiotics for, curing them of the disease. But Lyme (which is known as “the great imitator“) has myriad symptoms, most of which can come and go and are also similar to other conditions, like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or even depression.
“Symptoms can appear quickly or gradually over time, and they are incredibly varied and can wax and wane. The first physical signs of Lyme infection are often flu-like symptoms – sore throat, headaches, congestion, stiffness, etc. – so many people, including doctors, dismiss the symptoms as the flu or the common cold.”
Dr. Erica Lehman, a California-based physician and tick-borne disease specialist says that as Lyme goes untreated, there are a host of frightening and debilitating symptoms reported by patients, including “swollen glands, light sensitivity, sound and smell sensitivity, heart palpitations, muscle and joint stiffness, psychological manifestations such as depression, panic attacks, anxiety, and suicidal ideations, twitching of muscles, Bell’s palsy, brain fog, forgetfulness, poor short term memory disorientation, word finding problems, tremors, seizures, blurry vision, vertigo, tingling, numbness, stabbing sensations, chronic cough, sweats, weight loss, weight gain, hormone imbalances, poor digestion, changes in bowel habits, chronic yeast infections, and poor immune function.”
Wow. That’s a lot.
2Can you catch Lyme disease year round?
Though we’re primarily on high alert for ticks in the summer months, experts agree that we should be vigilant even as the temperatures dip. Dr. Nancy Troyano, entomologist and Director of Technical Education and Training for the family of pest control brands Western Exterminator, Ehrlich, and Presto-X., told HG:
“Ticks can be active all year round. Ticks are cold blooded and so in general, are more active in the warmer weather. On very cold days, ticks will go into a state of dormancy, called diapause. However, ticks can be active on winter days when the ground temperature is above 45 degrees Fahrenheit.”
3Where are some unexpected places ticks could be lurking?
It’s commonly known that Lyme-infected ticks are found on animals like deer or even dogs, but according to Dr. Nandi, they can also attach themselves to bats, rodents like mice, and birds. “These ticks may wander into the human living spaces, particularly if their normal hosts have died or abandoned that roost or nesting sites. Many other kinds of ticks are active outdoors in areas of high grass, brush, around woodpiles, in forested areas, or even in deserts and around beaches.”
So even if you’re not hiking in tall grass or spending time in the woods, you should be diligent about checking your body for ticks every single day.
4How can someone do a thorough tick check?
Ticks like warm, dark environments, so they’ll find their way to hidden spots like your hairline, armpits, behind the ears, and even between your buttocks. Dr. Troyano recommends doing a full-body tick check within two hours of returning from any outdoor activity, adding:
“It’s essential to look closely. Nymphs (young ticks) can be very tiny, and easy to miss, and unfortunately are also the most likely life stage to transmit Lyme disease. Tick nymphs may resemble a ‘walking freckle,’ so stare at your arms and legs for a few minutes! Use a mirror to look at your back and other areas of your body that are not readily visible.”
5Is Lyme disease only found in certain areas of the United States?
Dr. Troyano explained that in the United States, the Northeast and Upper Midwest regions will be at highest risk, but adds, “Those areas continue to widen and expand. Typical habitats for ticks (that most commonly bite humans) include woodland areas, especially along trails and edges of forests. They are also found in grassy fields or in areas with or surrounded by tall grasses and other vegetation. Note too, that ticks are not commonly found in trees.”
6How quickly will symptoms appear if you’re bitten by a Lyme-infected tick?
Though it’s commonly believed that when you’re infected, you’ll see a telltale tick bite or a bullseye rash at the site of infection, but Dr. Nandi says that often doesn’t happen, revealing that “50% of people infected don’t remember being bitten and less than 50% will get any over-emphasized rash.” Early symptoms usually appear as soon as “3 to 30 days after an infected tick bite,” according to the Mayo Clinic. But later symptoms can take weeks or months to surface.
7Is Lyme disease contagious? How else can it be caught aside from a tick bite?
8Can an infected pregnant woman give Lyme disease to her baby in utero?
According to Dr. Lehman, the disease is “passed through the placenta so [pregnant women] can transfer it to their fetuses, citing higher instances of miscarriage or children born with Lyme disease and/or developmental problems like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or autism.
She also said that Lyme can be transferred through breastmilk, thus putting a breastfeeding infant at risk.
9What are some commonly used treatments for Lyme disease? What about less commonly used treatments?
Dr. Nandi agrees that treating Lyme disease early is the easiest way to ensure a full recovery, but since symptoms are unclear and could be linked to other health problems, this can present problems. “Doctors commonly prescribe oral antibiotics to treat Lyme in the early stages. Treating this disease effectively at this early stage has the best patient outcome,” he says. “If symptoms persist, your doctor may prescribe additional oral antibiotics or change to intravenous medication.” Treating late-stage Lyme involves intravenous antibiotic treatment, which he says “can last many months. Patients also receive physical therapy, antidepressants, and anti-inflammatory medications.”
10Why is Lyme disease on the rise?
Dr. Troyano believes this is due to changes in our global climate. She said:
“The first is the expanding geographic range of the tick. The range is expanding due to warming temperatures and land development. The ticks are living in closer proximity to humans and other hosts, thus leading to an increased chance of encountering a tick. Another aspect is the weather. We expect to see a rise in the number of ticks in [years to come] due to the fact that we have not experienced extremes in temperature [in recent years]. We have had mild winters with a few extremes and have not had many deep freezes, which would typically control tick populations.”
11What are the best ways to prevent Lyme disease?
Experts all agree that wearing light-colored clothes, including long pants tucked into socks or boots, during outdoor activity makes it easier to spot ticks and harder for them to climb up from the ground to your legs. Dr. Troyano recommends using “insect repellents with an EPA-registered active ingredient, such as 20-30% DEET,” and when on a hike, “walking in the center of the trails and avoid walking through tall grasses/bushes.”
Though it’s an understandably scary disease, awareness and vigilance about ticks is the easiest way to prevent Lyme disease. Knowledge is power, so always check yourself (and your loved ones) for ticks every single day, and hopefully someday, undiagnosed Lyme disease will be a thing of the past.