The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an alarming increase in Lyme disease, a bacterial infection transmitted by the bite of an infected tick, a blood-sucking parasite that resembles a poppy seed when it first attaches. Lyme disease infects more than 300,000 people a year — 10 times more than it ever has.
Scientists think climate change may be to blame because it’s now the fastest-growing vector-borne infectious disease in the U.S. Increased temperatures are believed to accelerate tick reproduction, causing a population explosion in the tiny arachnids. And it’s spreading to new places and causing new problems.
CDC research reveals that blacklegged ticks, responsible for spreading Lyme disease, are not only growing in number but have migrated west to new areas of the country. They’re now in nearly 50 percent of all U.S. counties, up from 30 percent in 1998.
“The Northeast and Upper Midwest are, and have been, the regions from which the majority of Lyme diseases cases in the United States are reported,” says Maneesha Ahluwalia, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Yet, everyone living or traveling in tick-infested areas needs to pay attention, she warns.
Despite the spread of the tick population, what might be of greater concern is the lack of appropriate testing available to those who might have contracted the disease.
According to the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society, nearly 40 percent of Lyme patients end up with long-term health problems — chronic infections, joint and muscle pain, fatigue, decreased short-term memory or ability to concentrate and speech problems — because there isn’t a reliable way to screen for the disease.
The ELISA test, which most patients receive, misses 35 percent or more cases. Because of this, the average patient sees about five doctors over about two years before being properly diagnosed — making early detection difficult.
“Early detection and treatment is key,” Dr. Ahluwalia stresses.
The “bull’s-eye” rash
Approximately 70 to 80 percent of Lyme disease cases are associated with a classic bull’s-eye rash, according to the CDC.
Other early signs and symptoms include fever, chills, headache, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes.
Later signs and symptoms, possibly a month or more after a bite, include severe headaches, additional rashes, arthritis, palsy, heart palpitations, dizziness, shooting pains, numbness and short-term memory problems.
Once the rash is detected, get to a doctor as soon as possible. The most effective treatment is oral antibiotics twice a day for 14 to 21 days, says Dr. Ahluwalia.
There are many things everyone can do to stay safe, says Dr. Ahluwalia. Other than covering exposed skin and using repellants with DEET (on skin or clothing) or permethrin (on clothing and gear), everyone who works or plays outside should inspect their skin.
“Skin checks for ticks should take place after every potential tick exposure,” she says. “One should also check pets for ticks, as ticks can jump over to the human owner and cause infection in humans.”
Once ticks are detected, they should be removed safely. “Use fine-toothed tweezers to pinch the tick at the point closest to the skin and pull straight out without twisting or turning. Wash the skin with soap and water immediately after. Then proceed to your primary care physician’s office,” advises Dr. Ahluwalia.
Some experts recommend saving the tick in a sealed, labeled plastic bag in case you want to later have it tested for Lyme.
An additional warning: Experts say it’s important to always listen to your body. If after a tick bite something feels off, tell your doctor.
Other problem ticks
Lyme disease isn’t the only problem caused by tick bites. The CDC lists at least 15 other types of diseases caused by various species of ticks, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tickborne relapsing fever and Powassan disease.
Additionally, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology reports that the Lone Star tick is being linked to the development of an allergy to red meat. The tick bite releases a sugar called alpha-gal into the blood stream. The person’s immune system responds by producing antibodies. The next time the person eats red meat, the body responds with an allergic reaction, such as hives or stomach cramps — or even anaphylaxis, a severe whole-body reaction that may include difficulty breathing.
—Julie Sammarco for Greater Baltimore Medical Center
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