Understanding Lyme Disease: Prevalence, Health Impacts, and Prevention

September 30, 2019

If you live in a more urban area of the Northeast, you may not realize how prevalent Lyme disease is and how essential prevention methods are to your rural neighbors. However, regardless of exact location, everyone within the Northeast, upper Midwest, and northern California is at a heightened risk for the serious tick-borne illness, in comparison to the rest of the nation.

According to the CDC, around 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported each year – primarily within these regions – with estimates of up to 300,000 probable cases. Occurrences have been steadily increasing since 2010, with experts recognizing climate change as a key contributor. This is because ticks breed and replicate in warm weather.

Historically, peak season for Lyme disease has been June and July. Now, it’s stretching into the fall months, making it more important than ever to continue daily tick-checks after being outdoors, especially in “woodsy” areas.

In it's first reported cases, dating back as far as 1975, Lyme disease was initially misdiagnosed as Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (JRA) because of the prominent symptom of asymmetric swelling of the joints, explains Dr. Mark J. Condoluci, infectious diseases specialist at Jefferson Health in New Jersey. By 1982, it was discovered that the bacteria borrelia burgdorferi was the cause.

“Ticks – typically baby deer ticks, or nymphs – transmit these bacteria when feeding on your skin,” said Dr. Condoluci. “Infection from tick to host usually takes at least 36 hours. If you are unsure of how long a tick has been attached to your skin before removal, you should get it checked out.”  

Symptoms, in addition to joint pain and inflammation, may include fever, headache, fatigue, and a red lesion or rash.

“The ‘bullseye rash,’ which occurs about a week or two after infection, is the most definitive diagnostic symptom. If we see it, we treat for Lyme right away,” explains Dr. Condoluci. “It’s about 5 centimeters in diameter, and if your immune system is compromised, you may develop more than one.”

Recognizing these symptoms and starting treatment early is important to avoid a late-stage diagnosis and what many medical professionals refer to as chronic Lyme disease, or post-Lyme disease syndrome.

Post-Lyme disease syndrome occurs in nearly 10 to 20 percent of individuals who do not improve with treatment (which is commonly the oral antibiotic, doxycycline). Studies are still being done to pinpoint the reason behind this, says Dr. Condoluci. However, it is known that persistent symptoms of Lyme can lead to chronic fatigue, mental fog, cardiovascular complications, and facial paralysis.

Because there is no currently accepted vaccine for Lyme disease, it’s essential to take all preventative measures possible. Some tips to avoid Lyme disease include:

  • Perform daily tick checks, especially after being in a wooded area.
  • Know where on the body they are most likely to hide (warm and moist areas, such as the armpits, groin, and scalp).
  • Avoid tick-infested areas.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as pants, socks, boots, and long-sleeved shirts, when working outside or hiking.
  • Use safe and effective tick repellents.

This information was presented as part of Jefferson Health in New Jersey’s Healthy Living Series at Camden County College. To learn about the next lecture in the series, “The Benefits of Vaccination,” click HERE.