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Bitten by a tick? Know the signs of Lyme disease.

While ticks are most active in the warmer months, they may remain active well into the fall — and even year-round in warmer climates. Because of this, it’s always a good idea to check your body, scalp and clothing for tiny, blacklegged ticks after spending time outside.

Also known as deer ticks, the juvenile nymphs are so small that you could fit over a hundred of them on a quarter. But these teensy creepy-crawlies can have a big impact on your health: Many carry bacteria that cause serious diseases, including Lyme disease.

“One of the most challenging aspects of Lyme disease is that it can be difficult to diagnose,” says Dr. Stanley Martin, system director of infectious diseases at Geisinger. “Many of the symptoms are common to other diseases and illnesses.”

Spotting the symptoms of Lyme disease

If you’ve been bitten by a tick, you may have heard it leads to a “bullseye rash” at the site of the bite.

It’s true that this rash, known as an erythema migrans skin rash, is one of the early signs of a Lyme disease infection. However, only half of people diagnosed with Lyme disease will remember having a rash, and sometimes, the rash may not even look like a bullseye.

“If you don’t experience the classic rash associated with Lyme disease, it doesn’t mean you’re free and clear,” explains Dr. Martin. “Lyme is tricky that way. So, it’s good to be aware of the other symptoms it causes, too.”

In addition to the rash, other early symptoms of Lyme disease include:

  • Flu-like illness
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Headache
  • Bell’s palsy, or facial nerve paralysis
  • Extreme fatigue

The infection in either the early or late stages can cause inflammation of the membranes around your brain, facial paralysis and numbness and weakness in your muscles.

Diagnosing Lyme disease

Lyme disease is often called “the great imitator” since many of its symptoms are common to other diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, ALS and depression.

When it comes to diagnosing Lyme disease, there are two tests that are typically used: the ELISA and Western blot tests. Both measure antibodies created by your body in response to the infection, not for the infection itself. Since this is an indirect way of testing for Lyme, there are sometimes “false positives.”

Your doctor may also diagnose you based on your symptoms and exposure to blacklegged ticks, ruling out the possibility of other diseases that may cause similar symptoms.

“Diagnosing Lyme disease takes a bit of detective work on the part of the doctor and the patient,” says Dr. Martin. “As a patient, you can help by providing as much information as possible about your symptoms, history and potential exposure to ticks that may cause the disease.”

Preventing and treating Lyme disease

If you have Lyme disease, it’s usually easily treated with antibiotics. Especially when treated right away.

However, even after effective antibiotic treatment, some people can experience lingering symptoms for months. In this case, your doctor or healthcare provider can help you find ways to manage your symptoms.

Because Lyme disease can have serious impacts on your health, prevention is important. If you live in an area known for deer ticks, it’s important to:

  • Wear long pants and long sleeves when you’re outside
  • Use a chemical insect repellent with DEET, permethrin or picaridin
  • Check yourself and your pets for ticks when you return indoors
  • Shower soon after spending time outdoors

“If you do notice a tick or tick bite, keep in mind that the tick needs to be attached for a certain amount of time to transmit Lyme disease,” explains Dr. Martin. “If you think the tick has been there for at least 24 hours or more, talk to your doctor about your risks. Prevention and early treatment are always best.”

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Meet Stanley Martin, MD

Bitten by a tick? Here’s what to do.