7 things you should know about Lyme disease

What do singer Avril Lavigne, actor/comedian Ben Stiller, author Alice Walker and former President George W. Bush have in common? They’ve all been victims of Lyme disease.

Lavigne just performed for the first time in a year since being diagnosed with the debilitating disease caused by a bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, that is carried by certain ticks and is estimated to affect 300,000 people a year in the United States.

Fortunately, Florida is not among the worst places for acquiring Lyme; but still, according to the Lyme Prevention Association, more than 3 people every day contract the disease in Florida.

“As the old slogan goes, education is your best defense against Lyme disease,” says Dr. Aileen M. Marty, professor of infectious disease at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.

Here are 7 basic things you should know about Lyme:

1. Ticks love tall grass and wooded areas (including city parks). Avoid these areas or wear long pants, long sleeved shirts and tuck your pants into your socks. Wear light clothing to make them easier to spot.

2. Fewer than 50 percent of people diagnosed with Lyme recall the bite. Tick nymphs (immature ticks) are particularly tiny – the size of a few grains of salt. Because they’re so small their bite is painless.

3. Get them off as quickly as possible. In most cases, the tick must be attached 36 to 48 hours or more before it can infect the host.

4. Not everyone develops the classic bull’s eye rash usually seen with Lyme. About 30 percent of people don’t get the distinctive circular rash.

5. Lyme is difficult to diagnose. Lavigne says it took doctors 8 months to figure out she had Lyme and she was bedridden for five months. Lyme has been called “the new great imitator” because it can produce symptoms that mimic a cold, arthritis, meningitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, Lou Gherig’s Disease (ALS), multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease and others. Diagnostic testing is unreliable, often yielding false positives. Also, many physicians are unfamiliar with Lyme.

6. Early treatment is key. The good news is Lyme can be treated with antibiotics; but the sooner you’re treated, the better. Left untreated, or late treatment, can lead to chronic Lyme disease. This can cause problems like fatigue, joint and muscle pain and memory loss – for years.

7. Prevention is better than cure. If you’ve been in a wooded outdoors environment, always check yourself before leaving. It’s also not a bad excuse for a good thorough bath before going to bed. Use insect repellent, especially in places where your skin might be exposed (e.g., ankle, wrist, neck, hands); repellants with Picaridin or DEET work best, but those with oil of lemon eucalyptus are also effective. Remember to check your pets for ticks, too; the tick on your pet can become the tick on your child or on you.

In addition to Lyme disease, ticks also carry ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Babeisa and other diseases. Also, some ticks are known to carry more than one of these diseases, which can lead to multiple infections from one bite.

If you really want to eliminate your risk of getting Lyme, pack your bags and head south – way south. Marty says, “ticks that carry Lyme disease have been found in nearly every country in the world, except for Antarctica.”