Summer is the season of Lyme disease — a bacterial infection transmitted to humans through the bites of blacklegged ticks — but this year could be a little different than previous summers for those fighting the vector-borne illness.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have discovered a new, rare bacterial species that can cause the disease and even more serious symptoms than the more common bacterium. If this finding is truly the first of its kind, as the researchers claim, then the information could change the way doctors and scientists look at the disease.
Lyme is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the country. More than 20,000 cases are reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every year, but experts believe upwards of 300,000 individuals are infected annually. The CDC reports that 95 percent of cases in 2012 were concentrated to 13 states in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where the tick is native.
But like many insect-carried diseases, Lyme is spreading thanks to climate change. Warmer weather across the continent has spread the home turf of Lyme-carrying ticks, numerous studies have found, including a recent one published in Environmental Health Perspectives (PDF).
That’s why it was so difficult for Melissa Bell’s son in Jacksonville, Florida, to be diagnosed with the disease, Bell told weather.com in 2014.
“In 2011, our then 11-year-old son suddenly began suffering from a variety of predominantly neurological symptoms, including severe headaches, vertigo, insomnia, fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, balance problems, hypersensitivity to sight/sound/touch and joint pain, forcing him to discontinue his various sports and causing him to struggle at school for the first time,” said Bell, who now works with the Florida Lyme Disease Association. “Our son had migraines so severe that he required intravenous morphine to relieve the pain. We are still haunted by his heart-wrenching, desperate cries for help.”
Another reason why Lyme is so complicated is that the symptoms are widely varied — and might appear to be a variety of other conditions and infections.
Read on to learn how to tell if you or a loved one could carry the disease.
You’re not practicing prevention
“[Lyme disease] is common in the areas that it occurs commonly, in the Northeast and the Upper Midwest,” Jennifer Layden, M.D., an infectious disease expert at the Loyola University Health System, told weather.com. “People should be aware of it and the preventive measures you can take: Using [tick] repellent, checking for ticks, seeking the care of a physician if you feel sick.”
The CDC also recommends avoiding densely wooded or grassy areas — it’s a common myth that ticks only live in the woods, when in fact they can be found anywhere with grass. After spending time outside, it’s important to bathe or shower as soon as you come indoors, the agency added.
Another word of caution from Dr. Layden: The ticks that carry Lyme are tiny, about the size of a pinhead, so check your body carefully, including under your hair. (You should also screen outdoor pets.)
NEXT: An early sign you’re sick
It feels like you have a cold
Flu-like symptoms, including fever and chills, are early signs of Lyme, Dr. Layden said. If you seek medical attention at this stage, the disease is quite treatable, she added, noting that most patients recover with just a dose of oral antibiotics.
Without immediate treatment, the antibiotics course becomes more severe. “If an individual or patient has a more severe disease, brain, spinal cord or heart problems, they may require antibiotics through an IV,” Dr. Layden said.
You have a headache or a stiff neck
On top of cold-like symptoms, a headache or a stiff neck can also indicate early-stage Lyme. These signs of infection typically occur one to two weeks after infection, but can crop up as early as three days after a tick bite. A few different infections from ticks can cause Lyme-like symptoms, Dr. Layden said, which is why disease testing is important for proper treatment as soon as possible.
You have a rash
(Flicker/Greg Peverill Conti)
The hallmark of Lyme disease — a bull’s-eye rash — occurs in 80 percent of patients. In some cases, though, a rash never appears, making recognizing the disease more difficult. “After [the rash] stage, if someone is not treated, we go into a stage where the disease can spread,” Dr. Layden warned.
You’re experiencing nausea and vomiting
These newly discovered symptoms can be associated with a different bacterial species that can cause Lyme disease than the far more common Borrelia burgdorferi microbe, according to a 2016 study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
The new species, Borrelia mayonii, also causes spotty rashes that are drastically different from the typical Lyme bulls-eye rash.
You’re tired all the time
During later stages of the disease, or what’s known as post-Lyme syndrome or chronic Lyme, patients experience severe fatigue. It’s not “normal” tired, but rather a “crippling flu-like exhaustion, one that leaves muscles not sore but literally unable to function,” chronic Lyme patient Jennifer Crystal wrote on LymeDisease.org.
Dr. Layden explains more about post-treatment or chronic Lyme: “[It’s] where you get treated, but then experience joint pain and fatigue. This is not because the bacteria is still there — the treatment is very effective — it’s because your body has developed an immune response trying to attack the infection.” This condition is somewhat controversial because some believe that chronic Lyme patients still have the disease, but Dr. Layden said that there’s no evidence to support the idea that people who have been fully treated can still carry the bacteria.
There’s pain or swelling in your joints
During the early stage of the disease, patients might feel joint and muscle aches and pains. If Lyme goes untreated, the infection will spread to the bloodstream, causing arthritis-like pain in the body’s large joints, particularly the knees. As the disease progresses, the pain can get worse.
You have heart problems
In rare, late-stage cases, irregular heartbeat and other serious cardiac symptoms develop as a result of untreated Lyme. “The infection can spread to the heart and cause heart palpitations,” Dr. Layden explained. “This is not a common thing.”
You have muscle weakness, numbness and tingling
Neurological symptoms can occur when the bull’s-eye rash is still present, or weeks or even months after a Lyme infection. In some people, these problems stick around far after antibiotics have been administered. “Some people have chronic neurological symptoms or complaints, including headache, numbness and tingling and shooting pains down their legs,” Dr. Layden said.
You have facial palsy
Depending on how the infection spreads, in some patients, it can hit the facial nerve, causing facial palsy or drooping, Dr. Layden said. But again, she noted that if individuals seek medical attention after experiencing initial symptoms, these complications can often be avoided.
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