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Lyme Disease Has Spiked 320 Percent in the U.S.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is really great at delivering scary (but 100 percent necessary to know) news about your health. They just released a new report indicating that the risk of Lyme disease has soared 320 percent in the last twenty years. Since Lyme infections typically come from tick bites and you're more likely to be in wooded areas during the summer, this is a fine time to take notice.

That 320 percent figure is scary, but a little more complicated than it seems. "Instead of looking at number of cases, they looked at number of counties that are at high risk," explains Daniel Cameron, M.D., an expert in the field of Lyme research. "They didn't give exact numbers, but the 320 percent change reflects the number of new counties that meet the criteria of high risk." (As for that other pesky summer bug, here's 7 Ways to Bypass Mosquito Bites, Minus the Bug Spray.)

Counties are identified as high risk by considering their population and clusters of diagnosis. The real gist here? Lyme disease has traditionally been associated with the northeastern United States—Connecticut, New York, southern Massachusetts, eastern Pennsylvania, and the nexus, New Jersey. Now, some southeastern and mid-central counties (in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota) are seeing more cases.

Why are infected ticks spreading west?  It will probably take years of research to unpack the causes, but there are definitely some indicators so far. "I think it's the role of birds, who carry ticks long distances," says Cameron. And of course, many researchers hypothesize that climate change is lending a huge hand. "The theory is that if the spring gets warmer earlier, then mice get infected earlier," Cameron says. The birds eat the mice, and off they fly, with a longer, hotter season to explore new states.

Panic-inducing though it may be, the point of the CDC report is to make sure each of us takes care of ourselves. If you grew up in the northeast—or you follow the tribulations of celeb Lyme sufferers like Avril Lavigne or Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Yolanda Foster—you know that Lyme disease is capital B bad. (The Weird Tick Bite Side Effect You Didn't Know About.)

It goes far beyond ickiness and inconvenience, however. "What's different about Lyme disease is that it doesn't directly destruct a part of your body, the way, say, pneumonia does," Cameron explains. "It affects multiple spots. All of your organs are intact and clear, but they're not functioning very well." Lyme mimics an auto-immune disorder, such as multiple sclerosis. The typical symptoms, like feeling fatigued and flu-like, could indicate hundreds of other illnesses, making Lyme especially difficult to diagnose. Plus, infection also doesn't show up in a routine blood test, making it even harder to detect—which is why prevention is so important.

The best way to avoid infection in the first place is to do a total scan of your body after spending time outside, on grass or near trees. Take off all of your clothes and systematically check from head to toe, with a partner or family member if possible (four eyes are better than two). (And practice these 6 Ways to Protect Yourself from Ticks.)

If you do spot a tick, remove it with tweezers right away and flush the bugger down the toilet. If it's already begun biting, "always try to take it out yourself, because the sooner it's out, the better," says Cameron. You don't have to wait to go to a doctor's office. "Keep tweezers in your house, and get it out that day, pulling it by the head first." The telltale sign of infection is a bull's-eye rash around the bite.

Even if you don't spot the rash, or don't recall spending time in the woods, Lyme disease could still be a possible cause of your unending fatigue or exhaustion. Bring up the possibility with your doctor if he or she isn't figuring out another solution and you're still feeling terrible for weeks. It's possible, even if you've never stepped foot in New Jersey.

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