What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is an illness that’s caused by bacteria carried by infected ticks. If you’ve been bitten by a tick and show any of the early symptoms of Lyme disease, you should see your doctor. Lyme disease is treatable, but it can cause serious health problems if you wait too long get treatment. Many people with Lyme disease don’t know they have it until their symptoms are advanced. Knowing the signs and symptoms will help you get treatment as early as possible.
Why is Lyme disease so hard to diagnose?
Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose for a number of reasons. First, people don’t always know that a tick has bitten them. They may not seek medical treatment until they develop symptoms. What’s more, many symptoms of Lyme disease mimic signs of other illnesses, including the flu. Also, the ticks that spread Lyme disease can be small and difficult to spot, even when they’re engorged, or full with your blood.
Next, the blood tests used to diagnose Lyme disease may not always detect a positive case. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a two-step process for testing blood. The tests look for antibodies that form when the body is trying to fight off Lyme disease. The first step is to perform an EIA, or enzyme immunoassay. If this test is positive or indeterminate, doctors will run a second test, called a Western blot, on the blood sample. A person is diagnosed with Lyme disease only if the EIA and Western blot test are both positive.
The accuracy of these tests varies depending on the disease stage at which a person is tested. In the few weeks immediately following infection, the tests are expected to be negative. At this stage a person may have developed a rash and fever but no other symptoms. The best time to test for Lyme disease is several weeks after infection occurs. This is when the tests are most accurate.
An infected person may also test negative if they take antibiotics immediately after being bitten by a tick. In this case the person may not develop antibodies against Lyme disease, or may develop antibodies at levels too low to be detected by the tests.
Not everyone who has Lyme disease is diagnosed right away, if at all. For this reason, it’s important to inspect your skin after being outdoors in wooded areas where ticks are common. Wear light-colored clothing that provides an easy contrast for the dark insects. Call your doctor if you develop a rash or feel sick after being in an area that’s known for ticks.
The CDC reports that 96 percent of Lyme disease cases occur in the Northeast and upper Midwest regions of the United States. If you live in one of these regions, you may be at increased risk for infection.
Perhaps the most well-known symptom of Lyme disease is a rash that looks like a bull’s-eye. The scientific name for this rash is erythema migrans. It occurs in 70-80 percent of people infected by a tick bite. The area directly around the tick bite may be red and raised and look like a normal bug bite. The rash often spreads in a circular pattern that’s lighter in the center and darker on the outer ring. However, not everyone who gets Lyme disease gets the target-shaped rash.
Classic signs of early Lyme disease include:
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