How has the global COVID-19 pandemic made this summer different from past summers? If you’re like many people across the United States and the world, you have been eschewing social gatherings like backyard BBQs, festivals, concerts, and the like, opting instead to spend solitary time out in nature, where there’s less chance of contracting this dangerous, even deadly disease.
Unfortunately, by doing so you might be putting yourself at greater risk for another malady: Lyme disease. Let’s take a look at what Lyme is, what causes it, and how you can cope with this infection.
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First Things First: What Is Lyme, Exactly?
Lyme disease, named after the town of Lyme, CT, where the first documented cases originated, is a bacterial infection. It is transmitted by deer ticks and black-legged ticks, tiny arachnids that are usually found in grassy or wooded regions. As diseases go, Lyme is a relatively recent one that has only been studied since the early 1970s.
In the past few decades, Lyme has transformed from a little-known, mysterious infection to one of the CDC’s top notifiable diseases, with some 400,000 new cases diagnosed each year. The past few decades have also seen advancements in the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme, as well as in Lyme disease pain management.
Who Can Contract Lyme Disease?
After it was first identified, Lyme disease was most prevalent on the East Coast of the United States, largely because it was initially connected to deer ticks, who make their home in that region of the country. However, there have been Lyme diagnoses in every state of the U.S. except for Hawaii, and it is also found in many other countries.
Some people are more susceptible to contracting this tick-borne infection. It is more common in children and older adults. Anyone who works outdoors, particularly in wooded areas – park rangers, hunting guides, firefighters, and the like – is also more likely to be diagnosed with Lyme, simply because they are more likely to be bitten by a tick.
What Are the Symptoms?
One of the reasons Lyme is so potentially dangerous is that it’s insidious. It has been called “The Great Imitator,” as its symptoms are easy to mistake as those of several other diseases. Patients who are eventually diagnosed with Lyme disease often receive other diagnoses first. These include fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, cellulitis, Epstein-Barr syndrome, and even depression.
Misdiagnoses are not merely inconvenient and frustrating. They can actually have devastating consequences, because the earlier Lyme disease can be diagnosed, the more receptive it is to treatment.
For this reason, it’s wise to be well aware of the symptoms of Lyme disease, even if you have a low risk of contracting it. Some of the most common signs are:
- A flat, red rash, often in an oval shape or bullseye pattern, that does not itch
- Fatigue, sluggishness, and lack of energy
- Stiff, swollen, or achy joints
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty concentrating or memory issues
- Light sensitivity or blurred vision
Is It Possible to Prevent Lyme Disease?
Unfortunately, ticks are tiny insects and their bites are painless. This means that a tick can attach itself to your skin and stay there for days, increasing the risk it will transmit pathogens to your bloodstream.
If you enjoy being out in nature, take some precautions to guard against ticks and their bites. Wearing protective clothing, such as lightweight but long-sleeved shirts and pants tucked into your socks, is one such precaution. You can also use insect repellant on both your body and your clothing – there are different types of repellents formulated to be used on skin and fabric.
Homeowners who have a yard and/or garden can take steps to “tick-proof” their land, too. Keep deer away from your vegetables and flowers by installing a deer fence. Mow and trim grasses and plants regularly to make your yard inhospitable to mice (which are another source of tick-borne bacteria).
Upon returning from a hike or other outdoor activity in tick-heavy areas, make certain to conduct a thorough check for ticks. Check your pets, too! If you do find one, remove it as quickly as possible using tweezers. Whether or not you see ticks on your body, err on the side of safety by taking a shower as soon as you get home, too.
Ticks can also hide in your clothing, so change out of your outdoor clothes and wash them right away. Removing any ticks that are on your body or clothing will drastically reduce the possibility of being infected.