What Is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness, which means it spreads to humans via a bite from a tick infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. The species of tick that can spread Lyme — known as the blacklegged or deer tick — is found in many parts of the country: the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and north-central states (like Wisconsin and Minnesota). Meanwhile, on the Pacific Coast, the aptly named western blacklegged tick can also spread the disease. This happens predominantly in Northern California, though cases have also been reported in Arizona and Nevada.
However, most of the CDC’s reported cases occur in the Northeast and north-central states. In fact, 96% of cases in 2014 were reported from Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Maine, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Minnesota, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin.
How Do You Get It?
Lyme disease is transmitted when a tick attaches itself to your body to feed. This often happens in heavily wooded areas, where ticks are more likely to run rampant (so, be extra wary if you’re taking a hike in the woods), but it can also happen just hanging out in your very own backyard if you live happen to live in an an area where there are ticks.
The good news is that in most cases, the tick has to be attached to you for at least 36 hours to transmit the bacteria. But the bad news is they often attach in places where you might not notice them immediately, like your armpits or scalp. That’s why it’s important to do a tick check by giving your whole body a once-over after you’ve spent time outside in an area where you’re likely to pick one up (be sure to have a partner help you look through your hair). If you find one, you’ll want to remove it fast. Follow the CDC’s instructions to make sure you get the whole thing out.
How Do You Know If You Have It?
First things first: If you find a tick on your body, don’t freak out — again, if you quickly remove it, your risk of actually contracting Lyme disease is much lower. Plus, not every tick carries the bacteria that can make you sick.
According to the TickEncounter Resource Center at the University of Rhode Island, only 20% of blacklegged tick nymphs (young ticks) and roughly half of adult females are infected with the bacteria (adult male blacklegged ticks don’t bite, so they don’t spread Lyme). This means that as scary as it is, a tick bite doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get sick.
Instead, you’ve got to look out for symptoms.
The telltale sign of Lyme is a red rash that develops at the site of infection and forms a bullseye shape. It might feel warm to the touch, but these kinds of rashes are rarely itchy or painful. However, the rash occurs in about 70 to 80% of Lyme cases, so be on the lookout for other signs. Other early symptoms include: fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes.
What Should You Do If You Think You Have Lyme Disease?
Get to the doctor, ASAP. If caught early, Lyme disease can be nipped in the bud with a two to three week course of antibiotics. When it’s diagnosed and treated in its early stages, most people recover “rapidly and completely,” per the CDC.