Tick bites are often harmless and can occur when spending any time outdoors, especially in areas with tall grass or in the backwoods. However, some ticks are known to spread disease that can have severe consequences on your health if not recognized early in the disease course.
One such tick-born illness is Lyme disease, which affects around 300,000 Americans each year, with most cases concentrated in the Northeast and the upper Midwest. What is most concerning is that many cases of Lyme disease go unnoticed, causing the disease to manifest into something more devastating.
This may soon change, as new diagnostic methods analyzed by scientists from Rutgers University, Harvard University, Yale University, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the NIH and other academic centers could offer a better and more accurate test for identifying Lyme disease.
“New tests are at hand that offers more accurate, less ambiguous test results that can yield actionable results in a timely fashion. Improved tests will allow for earlier diagnosis which should improve patient outcomes,” said senior author Steven Schutzer, a physician-scientist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
Lyme disease can be caused by four main species of bacteria and is transmitted by deer ticks in certain regions of the world, particularly in the northern hemisphere. The bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and Borrelia mayonii cause Lyme disease in the United States.
The initial presentation of a tick bite is the formation of a small, red bump. It often takes the appearance of a bull’s eye pattern – a clear circle surrounded by a red ring. This area may then progress into a rash that expands slowly. Flu-like symptom (fever, chill, fatigue, body aches, and headache) may also accompany the rash.
The most problematic finding occurs during late stages of the disease and primarily if left untreated. These can include the spread of a rash to other parts of the body (erythema migrans) as well as joint problems caused by severe pain and swelling. But by far the most troubling are neurological problems which occur weeks, months, or even years after infection.
These late-stage Lyme disease sufferers may develop meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain), Bell’s palsy (temporary paralysis of one side of the body), numbness and weakness in the limbs, as well as impaired muscle movement.
Current tests used to identify Lyme disease are based on over 20-year-old technology, relying on antibodies produced by the body in response to the bacteria. The problem is that many people produce antibodies that can create a false positive or even false negative result on this test, making it less accurate for detecting Lyme disease and more difficult for doctors to provide adequate care.
These new tests help solve all these problems and help doctors decide when to prescribe treatment, better avoiding long-term health problems.