MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The past year has seen an explosion in cases of Lyme disease, and WVU Medicine physicians want people to be aware of how to detect and prevent this disease.
Lyme disease, named after the city of Lyme, Connecticut, where it was first identified, is a tick-borne infection that causes fever, headache, fatigue, and a skin rash. If left untreated, it can affect the joints, heart, and nervous system.
Before 2015, the WVU Medicine infectious diseases team saw just a handful of Lyme disease cases each year, almost always in someone who had traveled outside of the state. In 2016, there were many more diagnoses, including in people who had not recently left the state.
“Before a year or two ago, the entomologists said that we didn’t have Lyme in our ticks in West Virginia. But now it’s here,” Kathy Moffett, M.D., WVU Medicine pediatric infectious diseases specialist, said.
Prevention is the best cure. People can avoid ticks by wearing bug spray and long sleeves and pants when going outside in wooded areas or tall shrubbery. When an adult or child comes inside, he or she should be checked carefully for ticks, paying special attention to the neck, hair, and the back of the legs. Someone else should check the individual’s back if he/she cannot see it. Pets should also be checked when they come in as well, since pets can also get Lyme disease.
A tick must be attached for about 24 hours to transmit Lyme disease, so removing a tick promptly is important. A tick should never be yanked out or tortured with nail polish or matches. Instead, the tick can be grasped behind the head with tweezers and slowly but firmly lifted straight up until the tick releases on its own.
The most identifiable symptom of Lyme disease is the characteristic bull’s-eye rash at the site of the tick bite, which may or may not be accompanied by rashes elsewhere. Anyone who notices this distinctive rash – especially if it is accompanied by fever, headache, fatigue, or swollen joints – should call their doctor.
Dr. Moffett recommends taking a photo of the rash so the doctor can see it, even if the rash fades.
“Use your phone to take a picture of what you have if you see something. The next day, it might be gone, but it’s so helpful as a doctor to see pictures of the rash or the progression of the rash,” Moffett said. “Pictures on cell phones are really, really helpful.”
Fortunately, Lyme disease can be easily cured with a few weeks of antibiotics, if diagnosed promptly. The treatment may be longer if the disease has spread to the joints, heart, or nervous system.
West Virginians have been fortunate for many years, but now extra caution is needed. Making new habits, such as using bug spray and checking for ticks, can go a long way in protecting people of all ages.
“Be aware that Lyme disease is now in West Virginia,” Moffett said. “Check for ticks, check for rashes. If you have a febrile illness or a swollen joint, usually the knees, ask whoever you’re going to see if this could be Lyme disease. And then as physicians, we really need to keep it in our mind that we have Lyme disease here in West Virginia.”