The Stealthy Symptoms of Lyme

This disease is spreading fast. Is that pounding headache or sore elbow a sign that a tick got ahold of you? Hard to know.

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Ticks are the ultimate hitchhikers, and the small-as-a-sesame-seed stowaways are on the move. The kinds that carry Lyme disease are now in almost half of U.S. counties—a 45 percent increase since 1998. The spread results in more than 300,000 people being diagnosed with Lyme every year. If left untreated, the disease can have scary symptoms that target your heart, nervous system, and more.

Giving your body a regular once-over for ticks is the first step in preventing Lyme disease—but don't stop there. It's also smart to stay alert to the disease's symptoms if you've been doing anything outdoorsy, even if you don't think you've been bitten. The key to beating Lyme is to identify it ASAP: New research has found that there's a 21 percent increased chance of responding well to treatment when the disease is diagnosed at an early stage. Ideally, you want to catch Lyme in the first two to four weeks, but many people miss the symptoms, or confuse them with something else. Watch for the easily ignored Lyme signs below so you don't make that same mistake.

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Up to 75 percent of people diagnosed with Lyme disease don't remember being bitten by a tick.

You Think It's a Spider Bite

Lyme disease is famous for a "bull's-eye" target-like rash, but many people experience a round, red mark similar to an insect bite — or nothing at all. Look out for any unusual redness, and don't write off Lyme just because there's no rash.

You Think It's the Flu

Both Lyme disease and influenza can bring on chills, sweats, and a fever — but a major red flag is having these symptoms without a runny nose or cough. That's a mark of Lyme.

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You Think It's Arthritis

While symptoms are similar, aches could be an early sign of Lyme if pain affects just one joint or changes location, such as swelling in the elbow that then moves to the shoulder.

You Think It's a Migraine

A stiff neck and headaches are common in the initial stages of infection. Get tested if the pain is accompanied by sore muscles or sensitivity to light and sound.

You Think It's Exhaustion

The disease may trigger fatigue, and some people even confuse it with the extreme tiredness that can occur with depression. If you suddenly have trouble keeping your eyes open, bring up the possibility of Lyme with your doctor.

Look Out in the Fall, Too

Thanks to climate change, ticks are maturing faster and living longer. Doctors are seeing patients come in with symptoms from March through the autumn, with some cases popping up as late as December.

Good News About Lyme

Let's hear it for the people working to take a bite out of the disease.

Within communities: New public awareness groups are getting the word out about the dangers of Lyme and giving patients a platform to share their stories. Project Lyme, for example, connects people with resources that support their physical, mental, and emotional health while they fight the disease.

At the doc's office: A new Lyme disease vaccine, VLA15, just got the thumbs-up to be tested in clinical trials, and hopefully will become available to the public in about five years. Right now, the only Lyme disease vaccines available are for dogs.

On Capitol Hill: The Senate passed the 21st Century Cures Act last December. The massive health reform bill will fast-track the development of new protocols for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of Lyme and other tick-related illnesses.

This story originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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