Lyme disease cases continue to rise
The prevalence of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses has increased steadily in recent years, and this year is gearing up to follow that trend, according to federal health experts.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that each year, approximately 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease. This does not include people who are infected but who have difficulty getting an accurate diagnosis. The CDC estimates that the actual number of people with Lyme disease is actually much higher.
The number of diagnosed and reported cases has increased significantly compared to the last data release, when in 2016, annual cases were estimated at nearly 300,000.
The northeast has seen an increase in tick populations, and therefore an increase in the diseases these insects carry, according to the CDC. The battle with Lyme disease is a battle that many locals know all too well in recent years.
Ryan Polce was bitten by a tick while in the Adirondacks. “I felt the symptoms about two weeks after the bite,” he says. “It included the almost complete closure of my joints and insane pain. I couldn’t lift my arms above my head… and I couldn’t get out of bed without struggling.
Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria, according to the Center for Disease Control Borrelia burgdorferi and is transferred to humans by the bite of infected blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks. These ticks are of the type common in central New York City. Ticks can also carry other pathogens, and people can be “co-infected” with more than one tick-borne disease. Different types of tick-borne illnesses include Powassan virus, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and ehrlichiosis, among others.
There are three stages of Lyme. Symptoms sometimes appear soon after being bitten, which is an early stage of Lyme disease. Symptoms at this stage are often flu-like, according to FNP BC Briana Metzler of the South Lewis Health Care Center. She said early symptoms include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat and rash.
The next stage is early disseminated lyme, which occurs up to 30 days after being bitten by an infected tick. At this point, Lyme often presents as the flu, but with additional indicators including pain, weakness, numbness, visual changes, chest pain, heart palpitations, rash, and facial palsy.
Sometimes it can take years for symptoms to appear, which is labeled Late Release Lyme. This was the case for Meaghan Cooley from central New York. After being bitten, she did not develop a fever or any related symptoms, so doctors said she was in the clear. Three years later, symptoms presented themselves.
“She was complaining of joint pain and then out of nowhere she started having circular rashes all over her body,” said Meaghan’s mother, Wendy Cooley. “I took her to emergency care, but they said it was bug bites. As a nurse I had previously looked at the CDC page and she was showing pictures of atypical Lyme rashes, so the next day I took her to her doctor.
Cooley tested positive for Lyme disease and started treatment.
“She felt worse during the three weeks of treatment and about three months afterwards, then slowly better,” Cooley said. “Finally, after about six months, I think it’s pretty resolved.”
Other problems associated with advanced Lyme include arthritis, sleep disturbances, dizziness, severe fatigue, and mental confusion.
Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses often exhibit symptoms that can mimic other conditions, so a correct diagnosis can be tricky. FNP Button points out that the best approach to tackling Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses is prevention.
Metzler suggests wearing light-colored clothing, long sleeves, and long pants while spending time in grassy or wooded areas, and tucking the pants into the socks.
“When you’re outside, check for ticks every two hours,” she says. “Wearing a tick repellent with DEET is really helpful. If you do not wish to use DEET, a combination of lemon oil and eucalyptus oil can be used, and this mixture is also safe for pets and young children.
Metzler said ticks cannot jump or fly, so they cling to a host as it passes. The ticks then attach themselves to the skin and become engorged, feeding on the host’s blood.
The increase in the tick population has been linked to an increase in carrier populations, reforestation and generally warmer seasonal temperatures. More and more people are moving and living in areas closer to deer and mice, which are the main vessels of ticks. Rising temperatures and milder winters bring people more outdoors, increasing exposure to ticks and the diseases they transmit. Even the heavy snowfall last winter helped preserve tick populations.
“People are probably thinking that because this winter has been really long and very cold, this tick season won’t be that bad, but it won’t be at all,” Metzler said. “Heavy snow is actually a good insulator for ticks, so it’s going to be just as bad, or no better.”