It started on a recent Saturday afternoon: achy knees, fingers and neck. Chills, headache and fatigue. Probably one of those summer bugs, right?
Right ... except for the tick incident two weeks earlier when I’d pulled one off my torso and one from behind my knee. They were already engorged — like teensy bubbles with tiny legs — meaning they’d been sucking my blood for a while. Yeeesh! There’s something just plain nightmarish about those barbed, blood-sucking mouths — especially in extreme close-up.
Damn! I thought. I’ll probably get Lyme disease. Not a premonition exactly — more like educated conjecture. You see I write a lot about health. I know just enough (more than the average person though not as much as a doctor) to drive myself nuts imagining the worst. I knew those weren’t run-of-the-mill ticks. They were smaller (the size of a pinhead) and black-legged — probably deer ticks, many of which carry the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
I’d also seen Lyme disease up close: Both my kids had it a few years back and so did my next-door neighbor. We live in a semi-rural area of eastern Pennsylvania, a ground zero for deer ticks. I used to check myself religiously after hiking or yard work, but I’ll confess, I’d become complacent. I know, I know…
I looked in the mirror at the itchy red bumps left by the ticks and decided to erase the incident from my mind. Maybe I’ll get lucky.
And so it might have ended. Except for those suspicious symptoms that surfaced two weeks later. I Googled early-stage Lyme disease. Flu-like symptoms. Check. Bull’s-eye rash (erythema migrans). Wait…no. Maybe lucky after all? Okay…no…turns out some people don’t get a rash or any symptoms at all. In fact, almost half of Lyme sufferers don’t even remember a tick bite.
I decided to wait before rushing to the doctor, and actually felt better in the morning. But by afternoon I was dragging again. In fact, I was so tired, achy and chilled I finally went to bed. It felt like someone was pulling my eyelids closed and shutting down my consciousness too. I could hardly stay awake. The following morning was better, but by midmorning I was wearier than ever. Still no rash, but my gut told me this definitely wasn’t the flu.
You have only to scan a list of late-stage Lyme symptoms to propel even the weariest patient into action. Arthritis, neurological disorders, facial paralysis, heart abnormalities — I could go on. Catch it early, take antibiotics, and most people recover fully. Ignore it and you proceed at your own peril. You can still receive antibiotic treatment in later stages, but there’s no guarantee you’ll wipe out the infection or reverse the debilitating symptoms.
Funny how horror stories find you when something’s on your radar — like an acquaintance’s 9-year-old daughter who went a year with undetected Lyme disease and now has arthritis in both knees. Or my yoga teacher’s friend who likewise wasn’t aware of her infection and is now undergoing heart surgery to correct Lyme-related damage.
I wasted no time dragging myself to the doctor who noted my symptoms and even found one I’d missed: swollen lymph nodes. My blood test came back negative as predicted — apparently antibodies to the Lyme bacteria don’t typically show up in sufficient numbers to be detected until three or four weeks after infection. But patients living in deer-tick-infested areas who get bitten or develop symptoms (or both) are assumed to have Lyme disease and treated immediately. I’m to be tested again in three months.
The good news: shortly after beginning a 21-day round of doxycycline, my aches, chills, and fatigue disappeared. The bad news: Shortly after that I began feeling nauseous and an itchy rash erupted over my entire body. Turns out I’m allergic to doxycycline. My doctor prescribed a new antibiotic, cefuroxime axetil, and within hours the nausea and rash were gone. My recovery has been (thankfully) uneventful since.
Bottom line: I’ll be following the standard Lyme precautions from now on — that means covering up outside, performing regular tick checks, visiting the doctor if bitten — and maybe even if I’m unsure. A friend of mine who frequently works in her yard gets tested periodically — just in case she’s a symptom-less carrier.
One more thing: I’m certainly wiser now, but there’s one fact I maybe could have done without. Namely that deer ticks are only the tip of the tick iceberg. Apparently, several of their creepy-crawly “run-of-the-mill” cousins are equally hazardous, capable of transmitting such alarming — and potentially disabling — afflictions as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, Colorado tick fever, and Powassan encephalitis.
Almost makes you want to swear off the outdoors forever…
MNN homepage photo: JanetAllinger/iStockphoto