Take charge of your health. Sign up for HealthyWomen newsletters:
Find out more about:
Lyme Disease Symptoms Aren't Always Obvious

Lyme Disease Symptoms Aren't Always Obvious

By Stacey Feintuch

Share on:

The next time you go to the local bagel shop, look at the poppy-seed bagels or muffins. Harmful ticks can be the size of these tiny seeds. Despite its diminutive size, this Lyme disease-transmitting insect packs a mighty punch.

In fact, from 2004 to 2016, tick-borne disease cases have more than doubled, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And 82 percent of these cases were Lyme disease.

Causes
Lyme disease is caused mainly by black-legged ticks, also called deer ticks. They're brown, and when young, they're often no bigger than a poppy seed. That can make them almost impossible to spot. To get Lyme disease, you must be bitten by an infected deer tick, says the Mayo Clinic.

Symptoms
When Lyme disease isn't treated, an array of symptoms can happen, depending on the stage of your condition. Head to your health care provider if you notice any of these symptoms. Early symptoms, three to 30 days after a tick bite, include:

  • Fever, chills, headaches, muscle and joint aches, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes

  • A rash known as erythema migrans, or EM. It starts at a tick bite site after about seven days. It gradually gets bigger, up to 12 inches or more across. It may feel warm (not itchy or painful) and can show up on any part of the body. It may look like a bull's-eye.

Later symptoms, days to months after a tick bite, include:

  • More EM rashes on other parts of the body

  • Severe headaches and neck stiffness

  • Nerve pain

  • Episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath

  • Short-term memory problems

  • Numbness, shooting pains or tingling in the hands or feet

  • An irregular heartbeat or heart palpitation

Even if your symptoms go away, still see your health care provider. Just because your symptoms disappear doesn't mean the disease is gone. If left untreated, Lyme disease can spread to other parts of your body several months to years after infection.

Read more about ticks and Lyme disease.

Prevention
Be extra careful during warmer months. That's when ticks are most active. Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaves. You're not only at risk if you're camping or hiking. You can be bitten if your yard has tall grass or tress. Wear long sleeves and long pants when in these types of areas; ticks attach easily to bare flesh.

After being in those outdoor settings, bathe or shower as soon as possible to wash off ticks. Check for ticks on your kids and yourself using a mirror. Look under arms, in and around ears, behind knees, between legs, inside the belly button, around the waist and in hair. Bacteria from a tick bite can enter your bloodstream if the tick stays attached to your skin for 36 to 48 hours or more. But, if you remove a tick within two days, your risk of getting Lyme disease is low. (Inspect your pets and clothing, too.)

If you see a tick, remove it with tweezers. Pull steadily and carefully as you gently grasp near its mouth or head. Try not to crush or squeeze it. Throw it away and put antiseptic on the bite area.

The CDC suggests using repellent with 20 percent or more DEET, picaridin or IR3535 on exposed skin. That will protect skin for a few hours. Follow the product's instructions. On clothing and gear, use products with permethrin.

Treatment
A blood test will look for antibodies that show if you've been exposed to the bacteria which cause Lyme disease. Unfortunately, it can take a few weeks for your immune system to build up antibodies. That means you might get a false negative if you're in the very early stages of the disease. False positives happen, too, since it's easy to mistake other infections for Lyme disease.

Most cases can be treated with a few weeks of antibiotics. Recovery typically will be quicker the sooner you're treated. Oral antibiotics are standard for early stage Lyme disease. If your disease involves the central nervous system, you may be treated with intravenous antibiotics. The best way to prevent complications is to get treated right away.