Lyme disease has been increasing like crazy in the last 20 years—and early signs show that summer 2017 could be a doozy. Here's how to stay protected.
If you live in the Northeast, you're still a few weeks away from packing up your parka and winter gloves. (Seriously, spring, where you at?!) But it's not too early to start thinking about one summer health risk that might be headed your way: Lyme disease.
Back in 2015, a startling Lyme disease stat started circulating—the risk of the disease had increased by a whopping 320 percent over the course of 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as we reported in Lyme Disease Has Spiked In the U.S. Though 95 percent of cases occur in the Northeast and North Central states, according to the CDC, it's definitely spreading (just take a peek at those maps below). The even scarier part? Early signs show that 2017 is going to be a doozy of a summer.
The reason? Mice. Apparently, there was a major "mouse plague" in the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York last summer (critters everywhere!). Because mice are great at transmitting Lyme (they infect 95 percent of the ticks that feed on them), a mouse plague usually means the number of ticks will surge the next summer, according to ecologist and Lyme expert Rick Ostfeld, Ph.D., as reported by NPR. And according to Ostfeld, this means other areas of the Northeast are at risk as well. The high population of deer (which get bitten by ticks and help spread them around), climate change, and changing forest landscapes have all been factors in the mounting Lyme disease risk, he told NPR.
ICYMI, Lyme disease is a big effing deal. In fact, "Lyme is the biggest infectious epidemic affecting us right now," says Kent Holtorf, M.D., medical director of the Holtorf Medical Group, and a Lyme expert who suffers from the disease himself.
It can come with serious symptoms like severe headaches, rashes, arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling, facial palsy (loss of muscle tone or droop on one or both sides of the face), heart palpitations, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, and problems with short-term memory, according to the CDC. The traditional belief is that most patients recover quickly and completely after receiving antibiotic treatment, but in a small percentage of cases, symptoms last for more than six months—something occasionally called "chronic Lyme disease," and officially known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). However, more and more research shows that even people who were treated for Lyme disease and stopped seeing symptoms never fully recover to their pre-Lyme health, says Holtorf. Lyme might have the ability to hide inside your body (similar to chickenpox) and rear its head when aggravated by stress or other factors, resulting in symptoms that can range from gastrointestinal troubles and neurological issues to sleeping disorders, he says. (TBH, the discussion around long-term Lyme can be kind of confusing. Here's what you need to know about chronic Lyme disease.)
Unfortunately, Lyme disease isn't the only scary risk that comes with a tick bite: "Think of a tick as a dirty needle," says Holtorf. These bugs also transmit plenty (we're talking 15+) other diseases, according to the CDC—diseases that are all on the rise. Two noteworthy ones: babesiosis (marked by muscle pain, night sweats, and even weight gain) and bartonella (marked by depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, and also known as cat scratch disease), says Holtorf. Because this summer's projected Lyme risk is due to the high tick population, your risk for these other diseases could surge as well.
Clearly, it's time to brush up on your anti-tick game plan: Make sure you're using the right kind of repellant, covering up your ankles, and checking hotspots (like armpits and knees) after spending time outside. Keeping an eye out for freeloading ticks is super important. It takes 36 hours of attachment for the transmission of Lyme disease to occur, according to the CDC, so if you can spot the sucker and yank 'em off before then, you'll be much less likely to contract the disease. Be sure to check your hair and skin thoroughly, because these buggers can be as small as a pinhead, says Holtorf. (Read up on other ways to protect yourself from ticks.)
If you do get bitten by a tick, make sure you pull it out from the very base or use a tick removal kit to make sure you remove the whole thing. Otherwise, you risk the tick "vomiting" its guts—and the disease—into your skin, says Holtorf. (We know, gross.) It also can't hurt to see a doc immediately after you've been bitten—you can even get the tick itself tested for Lyme after you've pulled it out, he says. And don't rule out Lyme just because you don't develop the infamous bull's-eye rash. Only about 20 percent of people experience that exact symptom. More commonly, people report flu-like achiness and fatigue, usually in combination with any sort of rash, says Holtorf.
And, yeah, while Lyme disease is a bit scary, don't let it stop you from enjoying the great outdoors this summer. Just remember all the health benefits that come with heading outside.