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Lyme Disease: What You Need to Know

What is lyme disease?

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that affects approximately 300,000 people per year in the United States. It is caused by a spirochete (spiral-shaped bacteria) known as borrelia burgdorferi or B. burgdorferi. This bacterium is most commonly transmitted when an infected deer tick (also known as the black-legged tick) bites a person, which transfers the bacterium into the bloodstream. Lyme disease is known as “the great imitator”, due to the fact that the symptoms mimic the symptoms of many other diseases. This disease can affect many different organs and systems in the body including the muscles, joints, heart, brain and nervous system. Patients are often misdiagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, depression, anxiety and dysautonomia.

Symptoms of lyme disease

Symptoms of Lyme disease are variable and tend to grow worse and more systemic, (affecting varying parts of the body), the longer the disease is untreated. Signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • Bulls-eye rash (erythema migrans)
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Headaches
  • Numbness or weakness in the limbs
  • Bell’s Palsy (temporary paralysis to one side of the face)
  • Impaired muscle movement
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Organ inflammation
  • Heart problems including palpitations, tachycardia (fast heartbeat), bradycardia (slow heartbeat) and arrhythmias

Testing for lyme disease

If you or your doctor suspect lyme disease, your clinical symptoms and the area in which you live will be evaluated. An enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test can be performed if lyme disease is suspected. This test detects the antibodies to B. burgdorferi. However, this test can provide false positive results and may not provide a positive result at all in the early stages of lyme disease. If the ELISA test provides a positive result, a second test called a western blot test is normally used to confirm the diagnosis of lyme disease. This test is more specialized and detects antibodies to several proteins of B. burgdorferi.

Treatment for lyme disease

Once lyme disease has been confirmed and diagnosed, treatment can begin using antibiotics. Standard treatment for early-stage lyme disease is oral antibiotics. Doxycycline is normally used for patients older than eight years of age. Amoxicillin or cefuroxime can be used for adults, children and pregnant or breastfeeding mothers. A full course of antibiotics lasting 14 to 21 days is normally effective in curing lyme disease. If the disease has progressed to involve the central nervous system, your doctor may recommend intravenous (IV) antibiotics for a period of 14 to 28 days. These will be given through a catheter placed in one of your veins. The antibiotics will be delivered directly into your bloodstream, however it may take a little longer to recover from the disease.

Take precautions to avoid contracting the disease

It is important to take precautions and steps to avoid becoming infected with B. burgdorferi to help eliminate the chances of contracting lyme disease. When going camping, hiking or entering a wooded area or an area with tall grass, it is important to cover up. Tuck pant legs into your socks and try to keep to trails so that you are not walking in tall grass or shrubbery. Be sure to use insect repellent when spending time outdoors. Check yourself, family members and pets for ticks. It is also important to remember that once you have been treated for lyme disease, you are not immune. It is possible to have Lyme disease more than once.