Summer is the season for Lyme disease—a condition caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi that is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged ticks. The Center for Disease Control suggests that the number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease each year in the United States is around 300,000. Lyme disease cases are concentrated in the Northeast and upper Midwest, with 14 states making up 96 percent of reported cases.
Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings (like a visible rash) and the chances of exposure to infected ticks. But diagnosis isn’t always easy: once infected, your body can respond to the disease in a number of different ways. Apart from the “bullseye”-shaped rash, many of the other symptoms of Lyme disease aren’t as well known. To better understand if your unexceptional symptoms might be warning signs of a much larger issue, these are the most common indications of Lyme disease.
Early signs and symptoms
The first signs of Lyme disease will appear three to 30 days after the tick bite, with an average period of seven days. These symptoms include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes—all indications that tend to get overlooked as minor and inconsequential. Most recognizable to the general population, 70 to 80 percent of infected persons develop an erythema migrans (EM) rash. The dermal reaction gradually expands reaching up to 12 inches or more (30 cm) across. Although it may feel warm to the touch, the rash is rarely itchy or painful. It can appear anywhere on the body.
Later signs and symptoms
Once days to months have passed since the tick bite, a longer list of symptoms might develop. Additional EM rashes may develop on other areas of the body. The infected person might experience severe headaches and neck stiffness, shooting pains, numbness, and/or tingling in the hands or feet. The individual might also suffer from intermittent pain in tendons, muscles, joints (especially in the knees), bones and nerves. Episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath are not uncommon. In some cases, the person might develop facial palsy—the loss of muscle tone or droop on one or both sides of the face—, problems with short-term memory, and/or inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Lastly, in a condition called Lyme carditis, one might experience heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat.
If left unattended, the infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system. Thankfully, most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics. Talk to a medical professional if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.