There’s a lot of concerning news out there about tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease that cause fatigue, muscle pain, and fever. If they aren’t treated promptly, they can sometimes cause serious, chronic health issues. So if you are suffering from fatigue and you don’t know why, it’s worth considering whether the culprit could be Lyme or something like it.
What causes Lyme disease?
Black-legged ticks, also known as “deer ticks,” are the prime culprits of carrying Lyme disease, and the infection is most common in the northeastern and north central U.S.
The bacterium that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, is so widespread in parts of the country that healthcare providers will now test for it — and the other, lesser-known tick-borne diseases, some of which have similar symptoms — in patients complaining of fatigue with no other obvious causes.
If you have a tick bite…
- Remove the tick IMMEDIATELY. Use tweezers, not your fingers, and be careful not to crush the tick when you grasp it.
- Pull straight up with even pressure. Don’t twist or yank, as this may leave the tick’s head or mouth in your skin to cause infection.
- Clean the wound and your hands immediately with alcohol, iodine or soap and water.
- Preserve the tick in alcohol or a sealed plastic bag, or flush it down the toilet to dispose of it.
- Follow up with a healthcare practitioner if you develop symptoms.
- Crush the tick in your fingers either before or after removing it.
- Apply a match or other hot object to the tick to induce it to detach (it doesn’t work).
- Try folk remedies like nail polish or petroleum jelly to “suffocate” the tick (these don’t work either).
- Ignore any symptoms and hope they “get better on their own” — early treatment is crucial!
Source: CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/removal/index.html
What do I do if a tick bites me?
So let’s say you go for a hike or camping trip or just out to weed the garden on a nice summer afternoon. The next day, you discover a tick embedded in your leg. How will you know if you’re infected?
For any tick bite, it’s important to make sure you remove the tick quickly and correctly (see sidebar) and clean the wound thoroughly. Preserving the tick in a small jar of alcohol will help in diagnosis if you develop symptoms.
While not all ticks carry Lyme disease, there are other tick-borne diseases that can be transmitted to humans by dog or wood ticks.
Is it Lyme disease?
If the tick that bit you carried Lyme disease or other, similar diseases, such as anaplasmosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), you may develop symptoms like chills, fever, headache, fatigue or lethargy, swollen glands, and muscle or joint aches.
With Lyme disease, you often also get a distinctive rash — the well-known “bulls-eye” rash at the place where the tick bit you — whereas with anaplasmosis, rashes are very unusual (unless the tick that bit you had Lyme as well!). With RMSF, it’s a spotted rash, not a bulls-eye. Symptoms of early Lyme infection may develop within as little as 3 days or as long as 30 days; RMSF symptoms tend to happen within a week, with the rash developing shortly after fever begins; and anaplasmosis symptoms usually start within 2 weeks of the bite.
If these three diseases sound pretty similar, it’s because they are. The only real way to be sure what you have (so you can get the correct treatment) is to get tested by a healthcare provider. It is very important that you do not dismiss or ignore early symptoms, as RMSF can sometimes require hospitalization and untreated Lyme can lead to long-term, permanent damage to the joints and nervous system.
Symptoms of Lyme disease
When not treated right away, Lyme disease has many additional symptoms including:
- Stiffness or twitching in the face or neck
- Blurred vision or light sensitivity
- Tinnitus, ear pain, and decreased or hypersensitive hearing
- Upset stomach, diarrhea or constipation
- Night sweats or chills, palpitations
- Neurological symptoms like prickling, tingling, numbness, or poor balance
- Mood changes (depression/anxiety/panic attacks) and changes to sleep patterns
- General feeling of unwellness
How to prevent Lyme disease
The best way to avoid getting Lyme disease is to use the common sense guidelines below:
- If you’re going anywhere there are ticks — which means anyplace in the woods or tall grass — make it harder for ticks to get in by covering up with light-colored, long-sleeve shirts, pants, and hat, and tucking your pants legs into high socks so they can’t climb up the inside of your pants (light-colored clothing makes it easier to see and remove the ticks).
- Use a natural insect repellent made with essential oils like citronella, lemongrass, lavender, and eucalyptus, all of which repel ticks, on your clothes and especially on your neck, face, and hands to keep them off your skin.
- Do a thorough tick check to make sure you get any persistent ticks off you before they bite — ticks rarely embed themselves into skin in less than 24 hours, so the sooner you get them off, the less likely you are to develop a tick-borne ailment.
Keeping ticks off your outside is one step for prevention — but you can also take preventive measures from the inside. Boost your immune system with regular exercise, a healthy diet, and your favorite de-stressing techniques to make sure your body is ready to repel tick-borne bacteria should you be bitten. It is no accident that those who develop long-term health problems from tick-borne diseases are frequently those with suppressed immunity — so lower your risk by raising your defenses.
Coping with a tick-borne disease
No matter how diligent you are, it’s still possible to get bitten and infected. So we have to emphasize that the key to coping with Lyme, RMSF, anaplasmosis and other less common tick-borne illnesses is to get assessed and treated by your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Pay attention to your symptoms and don’t wait — the sooner you get treatment, the less likely you are to develop chronic symptoms.
Even if the worst happens and you find yourself dealing with chronic Lyme disease symptoms, don’t give up hope. There are many options to reduce inflammation in your joints and muscles that cause pain. Many of the options we use to address fatigue and joint painwork well for Lyme disease.