Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States, with about 20,000 new cases reported each year. It was first identified in 1975 when a group of children in Old Lyme, Connecticut, had mysterious arthritis-like symptoms. Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium B. burgdorferi, which is carried by deer ticks.
Not every bite from a deer tick causes Lyme disease. It is more likely to happen if the tick stays attached to your skin for 36 hours or more. Cases have been reported in nearly all states, and the disease is also on the rise in large areas of Asia and Europe.
It is very important to get early treatment for Lyme disease, so if you have any symptoms, you should call your doctor immediately. Although symptoms may go away after a while, that does not mean the disease is gone. People who get early treatment with antibiotics usually get better without any complications. But if it's not treated, Lyme disease can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system.
Signs and Symptoms
Lyme disease has three stages.
Localized Early Stage
A red rash appears within a few weeks of a tick bite, starting as a small red spot at the site of the bite. The spot gets bigger over time, making a circle or oval and sometimes looking like a bull's eye. The rash can range in size from that of a dime to the entire width of a person's back. As the infection spreads, rashes can show up at different places on the body. You may also have flu-like symptoms.
Early Disseminated Stage
- Pain and swelling in the large joints, such as the knees
- Heart problems -- Palpitations, lightheadedness, fainting, chest pain, and shortness of breath may develop in fewer than 10% of people with Lyme disease. Symptoms may show up several weeks after infection and last a few days or weeks.
- Neurological symptoms -- stiff neck and severe headache (may indicate meningitis), temporary paralysis of muscles in the face (Bell's palsy), numbness, pain or weakness in the limbs, or poor motor coordination.
- Arthritis -- 60% of people not treated with antibiotics develop recurring attacks of arthritis, most often in the knees, that last a few days to a few months. About 10 - 20% people who are not treated will develop chronic arthritis.
- Neurological problems -- Up to 5% of people who don't get treatment develop long-lasting problems, including numbness in hands or feet, shooting pains, and short-term memory problems.
What Causes It?
Deer ticks carrying the bacterium B. burgdorferi bite people. The bacteria get into the skin, after the infected tick has been in place for 36 - 48 hours.
Who's Most At Risk?
Your risk of Lyme disease may be higher if you:
- Spend time in heavily wooded areas where there are ticks
- Spend time outdoors in summer and fall
- Are young -- children and young adults are more likely to get Lyme disease.
- Live in the coastal northeast, as well as in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Oregon, where the majority of cases show up
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Lyme disease can be hard to diagnose because many of its symptoms look like those of other illnesses, and there is no definitive lab test for Lyme disease. About 20% of people with Lyme disease do not get a rash. Tell your doctor if you think you may have been bitten by a tick. Your doctor may order these tests:
ELISA test -- detects antibodies to the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Can result in false positives.
Western blot test -- detects antibodies to proteins of the bacteria
Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) -- detects bacteria in joint fluid and is used for people who may have Lyme arthritis.
The best defense against Lyme disease is to guard against tick bites. Don't go into heavily wooded areas, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and apply tick repellent. Use an insect repellent with DEET. Wear light-colored clothing, which makes ticks easier to see, and inspect your body carefully after you've been outdoors. If you find a tick, remove it with tweezers, making sure to remove the head as well as the body. Seeing your doctor and taking antibiotics within 3 days of a tick bite may prevent Lyme disease.
Your health care provider may prescribe the following medications:
Antibiotics -- usually doxycycline (Vibramycin), amoxicillin, and cefuroxime (Ceftin) are prescribed. Later-stage Lyme disease may require intravenous (IV) antibiotics, either ceftriaxone (Rocephin) or penicillin.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve), to relieve pain and inflammation.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
You should never treat Lyme disease with complementary therapies alone. Anyone who has Lyme disease needs to take antibiotics to cure the disease and avoid complications. Lyme disease does affect many parts of your body, so including complementary therapies along with standard treatment may help.
Some people believe they have long-lasting complications from Lyme disease. Using CAM therapies to treat these long-lasting complications is controversial, with some conventional doctors believing that CAM practitioners are attributing too many random symptoms as being from Lyme disease. Make sure you see reputable doctors, whether conventional or CAM practitioners, and educate yourself so that you can be your own advocate.
Always tell all of your doctors about the herbs and supplements you are using or considering using.
Nutrition and Supplements
- Probiotic supplement (containing Lactobacillus acidophilus), 5 - 10 billion CFUs (colony forming units) a day. Probiotics, or "friendly" bacteria, help maintain intestinal health. If you take antibiotics to treat Lyme disease, the antibiotics will kill the "good" bacteria along with the bad. That can cause diarrhea or yeast infections. Taking probiotics may reduce these side effects. People with weakened immune systems or those who take drugs to suppress their immune systems should ask their doctors before taking probiotics.
- Beta-glucan -- a kind of fiber sometimes used to help fight Lyme disease, although there aren't any studies to say whether it works or not. Beta glucan is thought to stimulate the immune system, so people with weakened immune systems or those who take drugs to suppress their immune systems should ask their doctors before taking it.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a healthcare practitioner.
- Garlic (Allium sativum) has antibacterial effects, and one study suggested it may help prevent tick bites. In that study, people who took garlic reported fewer bites than those who took a placebo. More study is needed to tell whether garlic can help repel ticks. Garlic may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you also take blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin.
- Essaic: burdock root (Arctium lappa), sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella), slippery elm (Ulmus fulva), rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) -- Some herbal practitioners may prescribe Essaic to help treat Lyme disease, although there aren't any studies to say whether it works. Essaic is a formula that contains several different herbs, and may interact with many medications and potentially cause some dangerous side effects. Don't take Essaic on your own. Make sure you have the supervision of an experienced herbal practitioner, and let your doctor know what you are taking.
Few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. Professional homeopaths, however, may recommend treatments for Lyme disease based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. In some cases, such as Lyme disease, a professional homeopath may prescribe specific remedies without considering the individual's constitutional state. Such remedies for Lyme disease include:
- Arsenicum album
- Borrelia burgdorferi nosode
- Lac canimum
Prognosis and Possible Complications
Most people who are treated with antibiotics make a full recovery. Getting early treatment can help avoid complications.
If you have a severe and advanced case of Lyme disease with varied symptoms, your health care provider may want to see you regularly.
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- Last Reviewed on 07/07/2012
- Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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This page was last updated: May 7, 2013