Get the Facts on Lyme Disease (and other Tick-Borne Illnesses)
Jun 20, 2023 | Family Medicine | Share:
As the summer days grow longer and you’re spending more time outside, the risk of tick bites and tick-borne illnesses also increases. You probably already know that tick bites can be hazardous to your health. But do you know what to do if you've been bitten or how to prevent bites in the first place?
Our guide to Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses is designed to help you arm yourself with the information you need to recognize their symptoms and prevent infection.
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is an infectious condition that is caused by bacteria and transmitted to humans through tick bites. Not all ticks can cause Lyme disease; it’s primarily transmitted by infected black-legged ticks, which are commonly known as deer ticks.
When an infected tick bites its host (such as a person or dog), it attaches itself to the host's skin. While it is attached, it transmits the bacteria to its host. Not all black-legged ticks or deer ticks are infected with the bacteria. Tiny ticks in their larval or nymph stages can also transmit diseases, and these bites can occasionally go unnoticed.
For a tick to transmit Lyme disease, it must be attached to its host for at least 24 hours. If you identify and remove the tick quickly, you greatly reduce your chance of becoming infected with Lyme or other tick-borne illnesses.
Lyme disease has a range of symptoms, including fever, fatigue, headache, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. However, one of the most distinctive signs of Lyme disease is a circular skin rash that can look like a bullseye. This rash occurs in most (but not all) infections. Individuals with compromised immune systems may have a higher risk of complications from an infection.
People who live or spend time in wooded or grassy areas are more prone to tick bites and tick-borne illnesses. This includes outdoor workers and those engaging in recreational activities such as hiking, camping, or gardening, especially in tick-infested habitats.
Common Myths about Lyme Disease
There are a lot of myths and misconceptions that surround Lyme disease. Let's take a closer look at some of the most common ones:
Myth #1: You always get a rash with Lyme disease
While the bullseye rash is one of the most recognized symptoms of Lyme disease, it doesn't occur in every single case. It's important to know that while the rash occurs in about 70-80% of infections, not all cases of Lyme will present with this telltale sign. This means you could have Lyme disease even without the rash, so it's crucial to watch out for other symptoms like fever, fatigue, and muscle or joint aches if you’ve been bitten by a tick.
Myth #2: There's no risk of Lyme disease in Alabama
Lyme disease has been identified in all 50 states, including Alabama. Moreover, due to changes in climatic conditions and increasing deer populations, Lyme disease is on the rise in our state. Other ticks in Alabama, such as the Lone Star tick and the Gulf Coast tick can also cause tick-borne illnesses.
Myth #3: All Lyme disease is cured with antibiotics
Yes, antibiotics are a proven treatment for Lyme disease, and they're especially effective when the infection is caught early. However, not all cases will completely resolve after a course of antibiotics. Some individuals may experience what's known as "post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome" (PTLDS), which involves persistent symptoms like fatigue, pain, or difficulty thinking, even after receiving treatment. If you've been treated for Lyme disease and are still experiencing symptoms, it's crucial to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor.
Myth #4: You can get Lyme disease from your pet
Although pets can get Lyme disease and carry infected ticks into your home, you can’t get Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses directly from your pet. You should always check yourself and your pets for ticks after spending time outside. You also can’t get Lyme disease through person-to-person contact or from mosquito or flea bites.
Other Tick-Borne Illnesses in Alabama
While Lyme disease is a significant concern, it's not the only tick-borne illness you need to be aware of in Alabama. Let's explore some of the other illnesses ticks can transmit in our area.
Spotted fever, including the most known variant, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, is caused by ticks infected with the Rickettsia bacteria. This disease presents with symptoms such as fever, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting, and muscle pain. In many cases, a rash may also appear a few days after the onset of symptoms. Spotted fever can be fatal if not treated early, but resolves quickly with medical care. Spotted fever was the most common tick-borne illness in Alabama in 2021.
Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis
Ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis are two tick-borne illnesses caused by bacteria that have similar symptoms. Both conditions cause flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, fatigue, general malaise, nausea, diarrhea, and muscle aches. Some individuals might also develop a rash, though it's less common.
Babesiosis is caused by microscopic parasites that infect red blood cells following a tick bite. Many people who have babesiosis don’t have any symptoms at all, while others may have more severe symptoms such as fever, nausea, headache, body aches, and fatigue. Babesiosis can also cause the destruction of red blood cells, and it can be potentially life-threatening.
Alpha-gal allergy, also known as meat allergy, is a reaction to a sugar found in the meat of mammals. This allergy can be caused by the bite of the Lone Star tick. Symptoms can range from mild such as hives, itching, and gastrointestinal upset, to severe including anaphylaxis.
Each of these tick-borne diseases can pose significant health risks, making prevention and early detection key.
What Should You Do After a Tick Bite?
First and foremost, don't panic. While the risk of tickborne illness is real, not all ticks are carriers of disease. However, quick and appropriate action is key.
The first step is to remove the tick as soon as possible. To do this, use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Avoid twisting or jerking the tick as this can cause parts of the tick to break off and remain in the skin. Once the tick is removed, thoroughly clean the bite area with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
You don't need to save the tick. In most cases, testing the tick is unnecessary. However, taking a photo of the tick may be helpful to show your healthcare provider if you develop symptoms later on. After removing the tick, you can flush it down a toilet, wrap it in tape, or drown it in rubbing alcohol.
Monitor the site of the bite for any rash or redness, which could be signs of Lyme disease or another tickborne illness. You should also keep an eye out for other symptoms such as fever, fatigue, or aches and pains. If you develop any symptoms of a tickborne illness, reach out to your primary care doctor or visit an urgent care clinic right away.
When to See a Doctor for a Tick Bite
A tick bite in itself isn't a direct ticket to the doctor's office. However, there are certain scenarios where you should visit an urgent care clinic or call your primary care doctor.
- For removal: If you're unable to remove the tick completely, get help. A doctor or nurse can assist in ensuring the tick is fully removed, reducing the risk of disease transmission.
- New symptoms: If you develop symptoms such as a rash, fever, fatigue, or muscle and joint aches in the days or weeks following a tick bite, call your primary care doctor immediately. These symptoms could indicate Lyme disease or another tick-borne illness.
- Infection: Although it's normal for a tick bite to be a bit red and itchy at first, you should call your doctor if the area becomes increasingly red, painful, warm, or swollen, or if it starts oozing pus. These could be signs of a skin infection, which requires treatment.
Preventing Tick-Borne Illnesses
Reducing your exposure to ticks is the most effective way to prevent Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. These are some simple ways to protect yourself:
- Use insect repellent. Insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 can be applied to exposed skin and clothing to help ward off ticks. Most insect repellents aren’t designed to be sprayed on your clothes or gear. To avoid damaging your clothes, use repellents with permethrin.
- Dress appropriately. When spending time in areas where ticks are common, such as woods or grassy fields, consider wearing light-colored clothing, which makes it easier to spot ticks. Long sleeves, long pants, closed-toe shoes, and hats can help keep ticks off your skin and out of your hair.
- Check yourself for ticks. After outdoor activities, be sure to thoroughly check your body for ticks. Pay special attention to warm, hidden areas such as the armpits, groin, and scalp. Bathing or showering within two hours of coming indoors can help reduce the risk of Lyme disease by washing off unattached ticks.
- Don't forget your pets. Pets can also carry ticks into the home. Regularly check your pets for ticks, especially after they spend time outdoors. Consult your vet about using tick preventives on your pets.
You don't need to be afraid of ticks this summer, but you do need to be aware. If you have any concerns or symptoms following a tick bite, don't hesitate to call your primary care doctor or visit an urgent care clinic near you.
At MedHelp, we're here to partner with you in better health all year long. Our urgent care clinics are open seven days a week with extended hours on weekdays. Primary care doctors at all five Birmingham locations are also accepting new patients.
Summer is the perfect time to schedule your annual wellness visit with your primary care doctor. And if you don't have a primary care doctor, providers at all five of our Birmingham locations are accepting new primary care patients. We can help you choose a doctor that meets your needs and fits your schedule.