Lyme disease FAQ

I hear about Lyme disease a lot more than I used to. Is it increasing?

The geographic range of ticks is expanding and it is now known that the disease occurs far more frequently than previously thought. Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said Lyme disease likely occurs in at least 300,000 people a year, a tenfold increase from previous estimates. The CDC said this was likely due to previous underreporting of the tickborne disease.

Ticks like this one, which are as small as a poppy seed, carry Lyme disease. (Lauren Owens/NECIR)
Ticks like this one, which are as small as a poppy seed, carry Lyme disease.
(Lauren Owens/NECIR)

 

How do I get Lyme Disease?

Bites from infected blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks. These ticks live in shady, brush-covered settings with leaf litter, and they latch onto people and pets that brush by. Most cases of human disease follow bites from the nymph stage tick that’s no bigger than a poppy seed. While ticks can bite in the winter, they are most active from April – September.

 

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?

If you had a tick bite, live in an area known for Lyme disease or have recently traveled to an area where it occurs and notice any of these symptoms, seek medical advice:

  • Red expanding bulls-eye rash on skin (not all people get a rash or notice it).
  • Rash/lesions may also appear elsewhere on the body.
  • Fatigue, chills fever, headache, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes.
  • Loss of muscle tone on one or both sides of the face (Bell’s palsy)
  • Severe headaches and neck stiffness
  • Pain and swelling in large joints such as knees
  • Shooting pains that may interfere with sleep
  • Heart palpitations and dizziness due to changes in heartbeat.

How can I be diagnosed with Lyme disease?

Doctors often diagnose Lyme disease based on symptoms and history of possible exposure to infected ticks. A bulls-eye rash is the surest indication of Lyme, although not everyone gets or notices the rash. Because many of the symptoms of Lyme can mimic other illnesses, doctors will often confirm a suspicion of Lyme with tests.

 

How does the FDA-approved method test for the disease?

It uses a two-step method. First a test looks for increased antibodies in the blood that react to the Lyme bacteria. But because someone can test positive and not have the disease, a second test called a Western Blot is performed to more accurately identify antibodies specific to the Lyme bacteria. The tests are designed to work together. The method has been validated, meaning that studies of its performance meet a high scientific standard and regulators reviewed them. However, the test can miss most people with early stages of the disease because their bodies have not yet produced enough antibodies to be detected; it can also be positive from a previous illness beca;use antibodies can remain in blood long after an infection is cleared from the body.

Andrew Onderdonk, professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, who was diagnosed with Lyme disease using federally-recommended tests in 2012. He worked on some of the first diagnostic tests for the disease. (Lauren Owens/NECIR)
Andrew Onderdonk, professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, who was diagnosed with Lyme disease using federally-recommended tests in 2012. He worked on some of the first diagnostic tests for the disease. (Lauren Owens/NECIR)

 

Why shouldn’t I use other tests?

The FDA-approved method isn’t perfect: No test is perfect, but you should ask if the lab has independently shown the test accurately identifies enough people who have the disease while at the same time excluding those who do not. Having an independent review to validate claims ensures it is not just the lab’s word their test works.

 

What other tests could I use?

Ask if tests are validated and peer reviewed and do not rely on the lab’s word for it or that it conducted internal validation. The CDC only recommends using federally- approved tests.

 

Can ticks give me other diseases?

Yes. There are several tickborne diseases the deer tick can deliver. In addition, other ticks deliver other diseases. For more information go to http://www.cdc.gov/ticks/diseases/

 

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.tickencounter.org