The name alone doesn’t sound that threatening, but Lyme disease has nothing to do with the citrus fruit most associate with a good margarita. First diagnosed in the northeastern United States, Lyme disease is the most common insect-transmitted disease in the U.S. Celebrities, such as Debbie Gibson, Shania Twain, Yolanda Hadid, and Kelly Osbourne, have brought attention to it recently by sharing their own struggles and diagnoses. But what is important here is that the tiny culprit that carries the bacteria behind the disease is on the rise in Texas.
Lyme disease can be a chronic, debilitating disease. But early on, its symptoms resemble the flu, making it easy to misdiagnose. Caught in its early stages, Lyme disease is no worse than a case of the flu. But left unchecked —and untreated — the disease can spread to the heart, joints and the nervous system.
The disease is actually caused by a bacterium carried by infected ticks and in Texas, the black-legged tick is the principal carrier. The thought of ticks themselves is enough to give most people the creeps: The tiny blood suckers bite and attach themselves, sucking your blood and sharing the bacterium through their saliva. Most humans are infected through the bites of immature ticks called nymphs.
Unfortunately, ticks aren’t hard to come by, especially if you like to enjoy the outdoors. They can be picked up when walking or hiking through high grass or brush, as well as on golf courses, greenbelts, ranches and in any wooded areas. “The more time you spend outdoors, or in rural areas, the more likely it is that you will come in contact with them,” explains Dr. Heidi Abraham, an emergency medicine physician in San Antonio. “Hunting, camping, hiking — all of those can bring you into contact with ticks.”
If you have pets, they can also bring ticks into your home. And there’s no time of year that ticks aren’t an issue. Adult ticks are active during the fall and winter, and nymphs are active in spring and summer. Both nymphs and adults are capable of transmitting the bacterium to humans. About a third of ticks carry the bacteria.
The good news?
Lyme disease is not difficult to treat, especially when caught early. Initial symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and skin rash. The rash resembles a bright red target, though only two-thirds of Lyme disease patients develop the rash. “The rash is a definite indicator. But if you don’t have a rash, feel like you have the flu and know that you were bitten, there’s a chance it’s Lyme disease,” explains Dr. Michael Magoon, owner/medical director of the Emergency Clinic Alamo Heights.
“Not everyone realizes they have a tick bite right away, but if you can find it, it helps with the diagnosis,” explains Dr. Magoon, a board-certified emergency physician. He emphasizes the importance of telling your doctor that you might have been exposed. “At the nymph stage, you might have scrubbed off the tick when you were taking a shower. Bring it up as a potential when you’re talking with your doctor.”
Dr. Abraham agrees. “Just because you found a tick doesn’t mean you have the disease, but you want to mention it to your doctor.” She also emphasizes that a tick bite doesn’t require a trip to the emergency room. “Your primary care physician can easily treat you. A simple antibiotic started as soon as possible can preventively treat it.” A blood test is available to confirm the diagnosis; however, it takes seven to 10 days to get the results. “And the blood work may not pick it up. If we’re suspicious of Lyme disease, we’ll treat you while we wait to get the results,” he explains.
“If you develop the target, or if you had a tick bite and you think you have the flu, mention it to your doctor. It will help with the diagnosis and get the treatment started more quickly.”
“Prevention is the best medicine,” notes Dr. Abraham. “Protect yourself when you might be at risk. Use insect repellent and check yourself immediately after being outside. If you find a tick, remove it immediately.”
Dr. Abraham notes that folk remedies like petroleum jelly or burning the tick are not recommended. “Those remedies don’t work and take too long. Use tweezers, grasp it closely to the head and pull it straight out.”
To help avoid the need for removal, take precautions. “A DEET spray on your clothes can help deter them,” explains Dr. Magoon, who also suggests that hunters be cautious and wear gloves when handling deer.
Be careful when taking off your clothes so that any ticks on your clothing are not transferred. And should you find an unwanted friend and then start to feel ill, be sure to let your doctor know so you can be properly diagnosed and treated.
By Dawn Robinette