If you like to spend time outdoors in the summer, you’re probably aware of the importance of checking yourself for ticks afterward. And, if you live in certain parts of the country, Lyme disease is very likely on your radar.
But knowing you could get Lyme disease from a tick bite and actually being aware of which symptoms to look out for are two different things. So, what are the Lyme disease symptoms to look for? Here’s what you need to know.
What are Lyme disease symptoms?
Lyme disease can cause a slew of different symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and you may experience different signs of the illness depending on how long it’s been since you were infected. These are the most common symptoms that can surface anywhere from three to 30 days after a tick bite, the CDC says:
Muscle and joint aches
Swollen lymph nodes
Erythema migrans rash (aka bullseye rash)
You may have the following symptoms days to months after you’ve been infected, the CDC says:
Severe headaches and neck stiffness
Rashes on other areas of the body
Arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling
Intermittent pain in tendons, muscles, joints, and bones
Heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat (called Lyme carditis)
Episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath
Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
Shooting pains, numbness, or tingling in the hands or feet
What is Lyme disease again?
Lyme disease is a tick-borne disease usually caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, per the CDC. It’s transmitted to people through the bit of an infected blacklegged tick.
If it’s left untreated, Lyme disease can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system.
How can you tell if you have Lyme disease or something else?
Lyme disease can be tricky to diagnose, given that the symptoms can mimic those of other illnesses, says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. “If you have the classic rash, you can probably assume you have Lyme disease,” Dr. Russo says. “But not all symptoms are classic and Lyme disease can mimic a variety of other things.”
Still, your doctor can order blood tests, including an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test to look for antibodies to B. burgdorferi in your blood, the Mayo Clinic says. Another blood test, called a Western blot test, is usually given to confirm the diagnosis, per the Mayo Clinic.
How is Lyme disease treated?
Lyme disease is usually treated with a 10- to 14-day course of antibiotics—either doxycycline, amoxicillin, or cefuroxime, the CDC says.
If you develop more serious complications like Lyme carditis or neurological symptoms, you may need to be given antibiotics via an IV, the CDC says.
How worried should you be about Lyme disease?
Ticks that carry Lyme disease are found in the eastern half of the U.S., according to the CDC. So, if you live in that area and you’ve been bitten by a tick, you should at least have Lyme disease symptoms on your radar, according to Michael Zimring, M.D., director of the Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center and co-author of the book, Healthy Travel.
But Dr. Zimring says you shouldn’t panic if you’ve been bitten. “If you had a tick bite and you’re fairly certain it’s been on for less than 36 hours, I wouldn’t be overly concerned,” he says.
Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees.
“Lyme disease isn’t transmitted instantaneously,” he says. “The tick has to be attached for a period of about 48 to 72 hours in order for transmission to occur, so people shouldn’t be worried with just a tick bite without prolonged tick attachment.”
When to call your doctor
If you’ve been bitten by a tick and have developed symptoms of Lyme disease, it’s important to call your doctor ASAP, Dr. Russo says. That should also be the case if you develop symptoms of Lyme disease but aren’t sure if you were recently bitten by a tick, he says.
And, if you happen to spot a tick on you and you’re not sure how long it’s been attached, Dr. Zimring recommends calling your doctor as well. They can give you a prophylactic dose of antibiotics to try to lower your risk of developing Lyme disease if you act quickly, he says.
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