What Moms Need to Know about Lyme Disease
Chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis…what do these three horribly debilitating conditions have in common? They can all be caused by an undiagnosed infection of Erythema Migrans, a.k.a. Lyme Disease.
Summer is almost here but the responsibilities of summer have already made their arrival…sunscreen, hats, water bottles, swimming lessons, tick checks. Depending on the area of the country in which you live, that last one could be of utmost importance in protecting you and your family from an unwelcome attack of Lyme Disease.
Lyme Disease was first discovered in 1977 in Lyme, CT when doctors began seeing an inordinately large number of cases of arthritis in patients of all ages, but especially children. Because the cases were all very similar, the doctors began testing their patients and discovered a bacterium causing an illness that produced significant joint pain as one of its symptoms. This infecting spirochete (or bacterium) which is carried by deer ticks is called Borrelia burgdorferi and if not treated with antibiotics quickly can lead to chronic, life-altering Lyme Disease which can leave it’s mark in lasting illnesses such as autoimmune disorders (chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis) and excruciating central nervous system damage (such as fibromyalgia).
A common misconception is that all ticks carry Lyme Disease. Most often Lyme Disease is transmitted through the bite of a deer (black-legged) tick but, in very rare instances, can also be passed through a mosquito or flea bite. The much larger dog tick and its cousin the Lonestar tick do not carry Lyme Disease but can transmit other illnesses such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. A deer tick is often no larger than the head of a pin or the tip of your pen which makes detecting it all the more difficult (especially if you’re covered in freckles, like me!). The tick feeds by attaching itself to the host and inserting its mouth into the skin to suck out blood. Lyme disease transmission takes at least 36 hours so it is very important to check yourself and your children closely for any sign of ticks on the body immediately after a day in the woods or if ticks are prevalent in your area.
What to Do?
If you find a tick attached to you or your child, collect the tick (see instructions on proper tick removal), place it in a plastic zipper bag and take it to your doctor as soon as possible for identification. If your doctor determines that it is indeed a deer tick, ask him or her for a prophylactic dose of Doxycycline. This antibiotic has been shown effective, if administered within three days of the bite, to help prevent Lyme Disease infection. Some physicians prefer to wait to administer a course of antibiotics only when symptoms develop. Unfortunately, not everyone who is infected will manifest obvious telltale signs of Lyme Disease. We have included a link to recommendations and guidelines laid out by the CDC on the treatment and prevention of Lyme Disease. These recommendations indicate that there is indeed prophylactic benefit to using Doxycycline after a tick bite.
Often, in the rush of the evening to get kids bathed and in bed, a tired momma doesn’t have the mental capacity to determine a dirty patch from a tick. So, if you miss the tick bite, what are the symptoms that would herald a bout with Lyme Disease and warrant a trip to your family physician? The most prominent symptom would be the bullseye rash. Unfortunately, not everyone gets a rash (20-40% of those infected report that they never saw a rash) and, for those who do, it may not always look like a bullseye radiating from the site of the bite. For examples of other rash patterns from Lyme Disease, check out the American Lyme Disease Foundation’s erythema migrans example poster. Other symptoms of Lyme Disease at it’s earliest on-set are flu-like, such as headache, chills, fever, fatigue and joint pain. The flu is uncommon in the summer. If you should experience these symptoms it may be wise to consult your family doctor and ask for a Lyme Disease blood test.
As the spirochete begins to move throughout the body the symptoms will become more pronounced such as two or more rashes not at site of the tick bite, pains in joints/tendons that seem to move from joint to joint, headache, stiff, aching neck, facial palsy (facial paralysis similar to Bell's palsy), tingling or numbness in extremities, multiple enlarged lymph glands, abnormally rapid pulse, sore throat, sudden changes in eyesight, fever over 100°F and severe fatigue. If you are suffering from unexplained, long-term symptoms similar to those listed above you may have been infected with Lyme Disease which has now become chronic. Untreated, the disease can linger in the body for years. Speak to your doctor about performing tests for Lyme Disease if you are dealing with these symptoms and there seems to be no apparent cause.
Diagnosis & Treatment
If you have been bitten by a tick or believe that you may have Lyme disease, immediately make an appointment to see your doctor to discuss your concerns and request a test for Lyme Disease. Blood tests for Lyme Disease, however, are notorious for false negatives. It can take up to a month after symptoms manifest for a blood test to become positive. The spirochete is tricky and likes to hide so it may take several varying tests, including the more advanced Western blot test, to find the Lyme Disease, especially if you have been infected for months or even years. Most doctors will administer antibiotics even without a positive blood test as long as there is a strong indication of Lyme Disease. The antibiotic treatment is lengthy, usually lasting between 4-6 weeks, depending on the severity and length of time you’ve been infected. To combat potential side effects from the antibiotics such as diarrhea and yeast infections it is important to talk to your physician about taking a strong, refrigerated probiotic in conjunction with the antibiotic. Simply eating yogurt (especially sweetened yogurts) will not provide enough probiotic protection to replenish the good bacteria being killed off by the antibiotics.
No one wants to spend their summer days locked away in the house to keep from being bitten by a tick so just as important as treatment is prevention. Here are some tips for preventing tick bites to help protect you and your family during the warmer months:
When spending time outside, especially in wooded areas:
- Wear enclosed shoes and light-colored clothing to allow you to find ticks more easily
- Scan clothes and any exposed skin frequently for ticks while outdoors
- Keep long hair tied back, especially when gardening
- Use an insect repellent (see below)
- Perform tick-checks on yourself, your family members and your pets at the end of the day
When taking the above precautions, consider these important facts:
- If you tuck long pants into socks and shirts into pants, be aware that ticks that contact your clothes will climb upward in search of exposed skin. Ticks prefer to hide in protected and creased areas such as the crook of a knee or elbow, the groin or an armpit. Check clothing often.
- Upon returning home, clothes can be spun in the dryer for 20 minutes to kill any unseen ticks
- A shower and shampoo may help to remove crawling ticks, but will not remove attached ticks. Inspect yourself and your children carefully after a shower. Keep in mind that deer ticks in the nymph stage are the size of the head of a pin; adult deer ticks are slightly larger.
Don’t forget to protect your property:
- Clearing leaves, brush, tall grasses, woodpiles, and stone fences from around your house and the edges of your yard or garden may help reduce the tick population. Ticks depend on rodents for most of their sustenance so getting rid of mice is important.
- Remove plants that attract deer, and use barriers to keep deer (and their unwelcome tagalongs) out of your yard. Treating yards with chemicals that kill ticks (ascaricides) is sometimes effective but exposes you and your pets to chemicals that may not be safe. You may choose to treat your lawn for ticks with non-chemical or environmentally safe methods instead. Call your local landscaping nursery or county extension office for more information.
- Keep lawns mowed and edges trimmed
- Clear brush, leaf litter and tall grass around houses and at the edges of gardens and open stone walls
- Stack woodpiles neatly in a dry location and preferably off the ground
- Clear all leaf litter (including the remains of perennials) out of the garden in the fall
While insecticides containing 10%-30% of DEET are highly effective at deterring ticks, we cannot recommend them. Recent research indicates that DEET is a powerful neurotoxin to humans and animals. Despite the fact that they do not last as long as DEET, there are several all-natural options that have proven effective against summer pests without the harsh chemicals and questionable side effects. Everyone’s body is different and will produce different pheromones making them more or less attractive to certain insects than other people. This means that not every repellent will work well for every person. However, give these a try and see if they might work for you:
- Badger Anti-Bug Balm and Anti-Bug Spray offer powerful protection from all kinds of insects and are made from 100% all-natural ingredients.
- California Baby Bug Repellent contains citronella and lemongrass, both shown effective at deterring insect attacks.
- Bug Off Spray , another great lemongrass repellent that will keep you bug-free while you’re DEET-free.
- Thera Neem Outdoor Herbal Spray , neem oil has proven to be another all-natural bug repellent for many people.
- Make-Your-Own Tick Repellent:
- Place a funnel into the top of a 12-ounce or larger bottle.
- Pour 10 oz. of jojoba oil or aloe vera gel through the funnel into the bottle. The jojoba oil or aloe vera gel will serve as a base to dilute the neem oil. The oil is more effective at making the natural tick repellent stick to the skin or fur, but some people find the oil to be too greasy. If you prefer, substitute the jojoba oil for a different base oil, such as almond or olive oil.
- Pour 1/2 oz. of organic neem oil through the funnel into the bottle.
- Fasten the spray nozzle lid onto the bottle and shake the bottle for five minutes to combine the ingredients.
- Shake the natural neem tick repellent before each use. Spray it lightly onto your dogs fur, avoiding eyes, ears, nose or genitals, once every two weeks. You can even apply the neem oil liberally onto your skin before hiking or going into wooded areas. In the event that an allergic reaction occurs, such as irritation or rash, wash the Neem tick repellent off using soap and water.
Don't let a tick ruin your summer fun. Simply proceed with caution and remember to enjoy summer while it lasts!
Kim is the wife of one rockin' Worship Pastor, full-time mom to four crazy and beautiful kids, foster mom to one adorable boy and Editorial Manager for ATFM. Toss in another part-time job, housework and what passes for a social life these days and she’s still wondering how she fits 32 hours into a 24 hour day. You can follow Kim’s adoption journey on her newest blog, It’s a Vertical Life.