Some experts are predicting an earlier and more abundant tick season this spring, which could contribute to a rise in Lyme disease. That’s scary to hear because this is potentially a very serious disease which affects more than 16,000 people in the U.S. every year. If it’s caught early, it’s very treatable, but if not, it can spread to your heart, joints and nervous system. That’s why it’s important to know the risks and warning signs.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread through the bite of the blacklegged tick. Not everyone who gets bit by a tick gets Lyme disease though–it only happens if you are bitten by an infected tick.
Most Lyme disease infections occur in the following areas: Northeastern states, from Virginia to Maine, North-central states, mostly in Wisconsin and Minnesota and on the West Coast, particularly northern California. But ticks are also found in other states, so even if you don’t live in one of these regions, you should still be careful.
Other risk factors for Lyme disease include outdoor activities in wooded or natural areas (like gardening, mountain biking or hiking) and walking in high grassy areas. Also, having a pet can increase your risk because they can bring ticks into your home.
In most cases, a tick must be attached to your body for 24-36 hours to spread the bacteria to your blood, so after you go hiking, camping or spend any amount of time in the woods or grassy areas, it’s important to check yourself thoroughly. Blacklegged ticks can be so small that they are almost impossible to see. Many people with Lyme disease never even saw a tick on their body.
Symptoms to watch out for include:
Rash — A small, red bump may appear at the site of the tick bite. Over the next few days, the redness expands, forming a rash in a bull’s-eye pattern, with a red outer ring surrounding a clear area. The rash, called erythema migrans, is one of the telltale signs of Lyme disease.
Flu-like symptoms — Fever, chills, fatigue, body aches and a headache may accompany the rash.
Migratory joint pain — If the infection is not treated, you may experience severe joint pain and swelling, especially in your knees. Although any of your joints can be affected several weeks to months after you’re infected.
Neurological problems — In some cases, inflammation of the membranes surrounding your brain (meningitis), temporary paralysis of one side of your face (Bell’s palsy), numbness or weakness in your limbs, and impaired muscle movement may occur weeks, months or even years after an untreated infection.
Other less common symptoms can include an irregular heartbeat, eye inflammation, hepatitis and severe fatigue.
As always, if you experience any of these symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.