After you get home from a glorious summer hike, you probably do a few things: post photos of the great outdoors to Instagram, take a quick shower, and chow down on some post-workout snacks. But if checking yourself for ticks isn’t a part of that routine, you might be leaving yourself open to Lyme disease. “It happens frequently that people have Lyme disease and don’t know it,” says Andrea Gaito, M.D., a rheumatologist with a private practice in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted by tick bites, especially those from deer ticks. Approximately 70 percent of deer ticks are infected, says Gaito. And those of you in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania should be on high-alert: Your states have the highest rates of Lyme disease, which is much more manageable when caught early on, says Gaito.
Lyme disease can easily go undiagnosed, mainly because the symptoms are diverse and easily misattributed. When this happens, you can develop what Gaito calls “late-stage or chronic” Lyme disease, which is less likely to respond to antibiotics, resulting in ongoing, potentially debilitating symptoms. “The effects of Lyme [disease] can last a lifetime if permanent damage has occurred before the diagnosis is made,” says Gaito. “It’s hard to treat after a certain point because the bacteria move deeper into the body to places where antibiotics have a hard time reaching, like the brain and joint spaces.” Doctors try to treat the actual infection until patients plateau or no longer respond to antibiotics, at which point they use anti-inflammatory medication to deal with lasting symptoms like permanent joint damage, cognitive issues, and heart problems.
It sounds pretty scary, but there are ways to figure out if you’ve got Lyme disease before it really has its hooks in you—or even prevent it in the first place. Here’s what to look out for.
What Are the Symptoms?
Lyme disease symptoms generally fall into three camps: neurological, arthritic, and cardiac. “The most common symptoms patients have are fatigue, headache, joint pain, and heart palpitations,” says Gaito. “A lot of people have different variations of neurological Lyme disease, so they can’t think straight, experience memory loss, or even [have] psychological issues, like depression and anxiety.” The symptoms vary a lot from person to person, though. “One person may be tired and have headaches, while someone else might have it and feel great except for a swollen knee,” says Gaito. “There are a lot of different strains, so symptoms depend on what the tick was carrying when it bit you.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 to 80 percent of people infected develop a bullseye-shaped rash three to 30 days after being bit. The rash is created when the tick bites, then secretes a chemical that thins your blood so it’s easier for the tick to feed (ick). That creates inflammation, which leads to the rash. But you could easily have Lyme disease and never get that exact rash. “There are so many manifestations of the rash itself because ticks have different levels of spirochetes, which are the bacteria that cause Lyme [disease],” says Gaito. If you do see a bulleye, it’s a major hint you might have Lyme disease, but you might also get something that looks more like hives or a spider bite.
How to Protect Yourself
While wearing long pants and socks make it harder for ticks to get access to your skin, those guidelines are hard to follow in the hot late-spring and summer months, when Lyme disease contraction rates are higher. Before you head into a wooded or grassy area, apply a natural tick repellent, says Gaito. If you don’t have any on hand, ticks don’t like lemon or lavender scents, so using a moisturizer or perfume with those is better than nothing. And if you’ve got long hair, make sure to tie it up and wear a hat. “It’s hard to check every inch of your scalp,” says Gaito.