Lyme disease is caused by bacteria of the genus Borrelia. Humans are exposed to the bacteria by infected ticks – usually deer ticks. Typically, a tick larva (about the size of a typewritten period) hatches and attaches itself to a small mammalian host like a mouse, rat, or rabbit, and feeds until it is engorged. If the host was a reservoir for the bacteria that causes lyme disease, the nymph tick is now a carrier. The engorged larva then drops to the ground until it grows to the next life stage – a nymph. A nymph, now the size of a poppy seed, attaches to a blade of grass or other vegetation and waits for another host to come along. Deer, small rodents, pets or humans are all suitable hosts at this stage. The tick is tiny and likely to go unnoticed once attached unless a concerted effort to find and remove them is undertaken. It takes 24-36 hours for an attached tick to infect its host with the bacteria that causes lyme disease. If the tick is removed the same day that it attaches, no harm is done. Humans are also likely hosts when ticks are in the adult stage, but as adults they are easier to see (and feel), so they are usually noticed and removed before they attach.
Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics, and success in treatment depends largely on what stage the disease is in when treatment begins. Early treatment usually results in no further symptoms; however, the disease is difficult to treat the more it has progressed. The earliest symptom is usually a “bulls-eye” shaped red rash either around the sight where the tick was attached or possibly in an unrelated location. Further rashes or blistering, fever, swollen lymph nodes, nausea, insomnia, and fatigue may follow the rash. Aching joints and arthritis are common and can be delayed in developing by up to two years. Treatment with antibiotics can still be successful up to a year after a rash first appears, but after a year has passed with no treatment, it is likely that the symptoms will be chronic. The most severe cases have led to chronic heart beat irregularities, strokes and seizures.
The best treatment for lyme disease is to prevent it. By wearing insect repellant in the field and removing any ticks that you find on your body after a day in the woods, you can save yourself a lot of trouble. If you find a tick has chosen you for its host, remove it using tweezers. Use the tweezers to grip the tick’s head and pull straight out with gentle persistent pressure. Wash the area and save the tick in a plastic bag in your freezer for a week or so. Watch the area for the bulls-eye rash, but don’t be alarmed if the area is red. The bull-eye rash that indicates lyme disease takes over a week to develop. If the tell-tale rash develops see your doctor – and take the tick with you for the doctor to do some tests.