A guide to identifying common symptoms

It’s time once again to start searching your body and scalp for those tiny, black-legged, little blood-sucking ticks that mark the beginning of the spring and summer seasons. Also known as deer ticks, the juvenile nymphs are so small that you could fit over a hundred of them on quarter. But what they lack in size, they make up for in the significant impact they can have on your health. They can carry bacteria that cause Lyme disease.

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

The bullseye rash doesn’t always mark the spot
You may have heard to look out for a “bullseye rash” that occurs at the site of the tick bite. It’s true 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 that rash doesn’t look like a bullseye.

“If you do not experience the classic rash associated with Lyme disease, it doesn’t mean you’re free and clear,” said Dr. Martin. “Lyme is tricky that way, and you need 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
  • Neck, back and jaw pain
  • 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.

Lyme disease is “the great imitator”
Lyme disease is often called “the great imitator” since many of its symptoms are common to other diseases. It can cause muscular impairment, stupor and mood changes that doctors typically see in diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, ALS and depression.

There are two tests typically used to help with diagnosis of Lyme disease: 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.”

“Diagnosing Lyme disease takes a bit of detective work on the part of the doctor and the patient,” said Dr. Martin. “Accurate interpretation of the test results is key for the doctor. 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 do have Lyme disease, it’s usually easily treated with antibiotics. Even after effective antibiotic treatment, however, patients may not feel back to normal for months. Your doctor will work closely with you to identify ways to manage your symptoms.

Preventing Lyme disease is much better than trying to cure it. If you live in an area known for deer ticks, it’s important to wear long pants and long sleeves when you’re outside, and check yourself for ticks when you return indoors. You should also check your pets regularly, since they can carry ticks inside and transfer them to you and your family members.

If you do notice a tick or tick bite, talk to your doctor right away about your risks. Early treatment is always preferred.

Dr. Stanley Martin is director of infectious diseases at Geisinger. To schedule an appointment with an infectious diseases specialist, please call 570-271-6408.

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