Is It Possible You Have Lyme or Another Tick-borne Disease?

Some doctors say that Lyme (also known as Lymes) Disease is all in your head.

Lyme Disease sometimes results in this distinctive bulls-eye rash.
Lyme Disease sometimes results in this distinctive bulls-eye rash.. Wikimedia Commons / Optigan13

You've experienced symptoms like pain in your joints, debilitating fatigue, fever, some depression. Over time you may have developed problems with concentration or memory, numbness, shaking, shooting pains, heart palpitations or dizziness, tingling and others. Your doctor can't seem to diagnose you, and tries to treat your symptoms, but even with treatment, your symptoms seem to return.

Or perhaps your doctor has diagnosed you: chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia might be suggested, but there are no cures for either, and your fever keeps returning.

An idiopathic infection perhaps? Antibiotics help you feel better in the short term, but your symptoms just come back once you stop taking them.

Or worst of all: perhaps your doctor tells you your symptoms are all in your head. You must have some sort of somatoform disorder because he just can't attribute your aches, pains, depression and memory problems to anything else.

But you know that's not accurate. You know those symptoms are real. You FEEL them. Your medical problem is most certainly not something you've made up in your head.

Like 25,000 other Americans per year, if you have been bitten by a tick, it may possible that you have developed Lyme Disease (also called Lyme's Disease.) At least it's a possibility you will want to explore - after reading the following, finding the right doctor to explore the possibility with, and understanding some of the risks involved.

What Is Lyme Disease?

Lyme Disease is a bacterial infection carried by ticks, tiny insects that are found on every continent, in all 50 states of the United States, in parts of Canada, Australia, Europe, Africa and other countries of the world.

The bacteria they carry is called Borrelia. In the United States specifically it's called Borrelia burgdorferi. When one of these infected ticks bites a human or any animal, it can spread that bacteria causing symptoms and illness which, in the United States, is called Lyme Disease, so-named because it was first named in Lyme, Connecticut in 1981.

Not all ticks carry the bacteria.

The CDC describes three basic forms of Lyme Disease.

  • Early Lyme Disease, also called Early Disseminated Lyme, occurs within weeks after a tick bite.
  • Late Disseminated Lyme Disease describes the disease when the first symptoms (like intermittent bouts of arthritis, severe joint pain or swelling) appear months to years after the tick bite.
  • Post-treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS) which is called Chronic Lyme by others (not the CDC) is the name given to symptoms that occur long after a tick bite, up to decades after the original bite, usually for people who never knew they had been bitten, and were therefore not treated early enough to rid themselves of the infection.

There is disagreement among experts on the diagnosis of PTLDS or Chronic Lyme, making its diagnosis, and treatment, highly controversial.

Ticks can be found in the woods, in fields, a pile of leaves - or on the family pet who may even bring them indoors. They may be as tiny as a dot made by the tip of a pen, or as large as a dime.

The tick attaches itself to its prey (a host, in the form of a pet, or another animal like a deer, squirrel or mole, of course, a human being) and hangs on until it's full of the host's blood. As an infected tick sucks the the blood, it will transfer bacteria to its host.

If you find a tick and pull it off within a few hours, it is unlikely Lyme Disease will develop (although if you observe symptoms, it's a good idea to see your doctor right away.)

Unfortunately, it is entirely possible to get a tick bite and never know you've been bitten. When ticks attach themselves, they may hide in hard-to-see places like armpits, or the groin area, or even on someone's back, buttocks or the backs of their legs. Even if they bite in an easy-to-see place, if they finish biting before being found, they will fall off, and the bite may be so small you can't see it.

Symptoms of Early Disseminated Lyme disease, also called tick disease, can appear up to one month after a tick bite. Those symptoms make you feel like you have the flu: fatigue, headache, muscle or joint soreness, and, of course, the famous "bulls eye" rash. Not everyone gets the bulls eye rash, though. Further, if you have been bitten in a hard-to-see place, you may never see the rash even if you develop it.

The fact that not everyone knows they have been bitten may add up to diagnosis difficulties short-term, and sometimes long-term, too. Unfortunately, the diagnosis may be so difficult that the patient is told his illness is "all in his head."

Next:

How Is Lyme Disease Diagnosed?

Most Lyme Disease is spread by ticks during the warm, outdoor months, which may vary depending on your location. If you begin to feel flu-like symptoms and you've possibly been exposed to a tick, either outdoors yourself, or from a family pet who could have picked one up, whether or not you know you've been bitten, see your doctor.

According to the CDC, 94% of US Lyme cases are found in 12 states.

In some areas of the country, doctors will not consider Lyme Disease as a diagnosis, whether or not it might fall into the realm of Late Disseminated Lyme Disease (Chronic Lyme). It's controversial, especially in areas where disease-bearing ticks are not ordinarily found. But people travel, and ticks can travel with them. Someone who lives in an area where ticks have not previously been found to carry Lyme Disease may have visited an area that does have those ticks, or may be among the first in an area where those bacteria-carrying ticks are migrating.

Find a map of known Lyme Disease risk areas from USA Today.

If you seek a possible Lyme diagnosis, be frank with your doctor about the possibilities. Describe any travel you've done to areas that may harbor ticks. If your doctor won't discuss the possibility of Lyme with you, then find a doctor who will.

Once you have found the right doctor to work with you, he or she will begin by ruling out the flu or other bacterial infections.

If your doctor believes Lyme is a possibility, he will order a blood test that looks for the antibodies developed to fend off a Lyme infection. There are three different tests that can help diagnose Lyme, but all have their drawbacks including false positives. Sometimes they simply fail to detect the bacteria or the antibodies.

In people who think they have Chronic Lyme Disease, acquired even years before they suffer symptoms, these tests may not work at all, which is one reason the diagnosis is so controversial, and why some doctors don't believe it is a real diagnosis.

Is There Effective Treatment for Lyme Disease?

If Lyme Disease is caught early and treated early, then yes, the infection can be cured and patients will live normal lives afterwards. Lyme Disease is treated with antibiotics which kill the infection caused by Borrelia burgdorferi.

However, left untreated for more than a few months, Lyme Disease may create bigger problems for patients. Some are treated with heavy antibiotics which may have limited usefulness. The question of long-term use of antibiotics is the source of much of the controversy that surrounds Lyme Disease.

Lyme Disease - the Bottom Line

If it is at all possible you have been bitten by an infected tick, and you experience the difficult symptoms described here, and if you are having trouble getting a diagnosis, especially in a case where your doctor tells you your symptoms are all in your head, then consider finding a new doctor, one who will consider a Lyme diagnosis, among other possibilities.

Read as much as you can about Lyme Disease, and the myths and controversies that surround it. Find a doctor who will be willing to work with you. Empower yourself with knowledge, and be an active and engaged member of your healthcare team.

Find an excellent compilation of Lyme Disease resources and references from the history of Lyme, to prevention, to diagnosis of early and later-stage lyme, to other's opinions on the controversy in the Lyme community.

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