What Is Lyme Disease?

How to recognize and avoid this tick-borne illness

Lyme disease is a serious illness. We know it's something we don't want to deal with, but the general public remains largely unaware of the facts about Lyme disease. The better informed we are, the safer we'll be. So, let's take a look at Lyme disease, its symptoms and how to know who's at risk.

Cause

Mayo Clinic reports that cases of Lyme disease come from the bites of ticks, most often deer ticks, infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, a type of harmful bacteria. Deer tick populations thrive in heavily wooded areas and forests. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Lyme disease is steadily on the rise, with numbers approaching 30,000 confirmed cases each year, and the vast majority of those cases come from wooded areas in the Northeast and Midwest United States.

Prevention

If you know you're going to be in a forest, other heavily wooded are, or field with high grass, be sure to tie long hair back and wear a hat, long pants and long sleeves, as this will make it much harder for ticks to get to your skin. Wear insect repellent. The EPA recommends mixtures containing moderate amounts of the chemical DEET, because it can effectively repel ticks for up to eight hours, but organic tick repellents made of plant oils are also available.

Characteristics of good tick repellents

Since repellent must be applied directly to people and animals, the more gentle your repellent is, the better. On the other hand, if it's too gentle, it might not be effective against the ticks. It's generally true that ticks do not like oils of any kind. Many types of plant oils have been used to deter ticks from hitching a ride on human skin. Rosemary, wintergreen and peppermint oils are all used to repel ticks. Also, clove and thyme has been processed into tick repellent. Ticks aren't fond of bitter-smelling herbs like garlic, and for this reason, they too make excellent natural repellents.

Here are a couple of natural, oil-based repellents:

  • Neem oil: An oil pressed from this evergreen tree's seeds is used as an effective pesticide either by itself or combined with other fluids. And neem oil is not only effective against ticks, but many other kinds of pests, including aphids, Japanese beetles, moth larvae and even certain types of fungus. Neem oil doesn't usually kill mature ticks, but it repels them from the area where it's been applied, deters ticks from feeding, interferes with the digestion of their food, disrupts their mating cycles, and prevents their eggs from hatching.
  • Tea tree oil: Not only an effective tick repellent, it has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties also. As with all plant-based oils, be sure to check for an allergic reaction by testing a small area of skin before covering your body with tea tree oil.

Detection of tick bites

After spending time outdoors, be sure to check your body for ticks. Deer ticks are about the size of the head of a pin and are brown in color. According to Mayo Clinic, it usually takes 48 hours for the bacteria to successfully travel from the tick's body into the human bloodstream, so you've got about two days to locate any ticks and get them off of yourself. As ticks feed, their bodies expand, making them more noticeable and easier to detect.

Signs of infection

If you find a tick that appears swollen, it may be that enough time has elapsed for the bacteria to have made their way into your bloodstream. Or, you might notice a rash in the shape of a bullseye at the site of the tick bite. According to the Lyme Disease Research Database, a website dedicated to educating people about Lyme disease, if this trademark rash is present, along with some early symptoms that may include fever, chills and headache, then it’s time to get yourself checked for Lyme disease.

Other possible symptoms

In addition to flu-like symptoms, Lyme disease may cause joint pain. WebMD states that 60 percent of Lyme victims get swollen joints or arthritis pain within a few weeks of contracting the disease. If you get diagnosed with Lyme disease, other symptoms to expect may include: dizziness or weakness, impaired muscle control, facial palsy or other kinds of neurological problems such as memory loss, difficulty concentrating and changes in sleeping habits.

According to a 1994 study in The American Journal of Psychiatry, Lyme disease sufferers may even experience frank psychosis, a mental disorder similar to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Treatments

Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics when detected early enough, according to Mayo Clinic. But with so much at stake, it would be wise to take steps to prevent the disease and watch for any early signs of infection. Be sure to educate your children about Lyme disease, train them to wear hats and long clothing when playing outdoors in wooded areas and help them check their bodies for ticks afterward.

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