There are many factors to consider if you think you might have contracted Lyme disease. If you have spent some time outdoors and now have a rash, or you're feeling tired and don't know why, it’s possible you have been bitten by a tick and infected with Lyme. Here’s how to tell if you might have Lyme disease.
The first thing to evaluate is whether you’ve been in any high-risk environments recently. The woods (especially off the beaten path), as well as areas near overgrown plants, grass or wood piles, can all be places where ticks love to hang out. Because ticks are often attached to animals like deer or mice, being in close proximity to these creatures can also mean you might have been exposed, since ticks can crawl onto your skin from an animal or a plant. Once they’re there, they’re very small and hard to see. So if you’ve spent time outdoors recently, it’s quite possible you could have come in contact with a tick.
If you have just been out in nature, you should check your skin to see if a tick is present. Make sure to examine all areas of your body, especially hard-to-see areas like the back of your neck or behind your knees. Don’t forget to check your scalp too. If you find a tick, immediately remove it with tweezers or a tick-removal kit. Clean the area with alcohol to try to get rid of any leftover bacteria. You can then send in the tick for testing to see if it was a carrier for Lyme disease.
If some time has passed since you were outdoors, the tick might not be attached to your skin any longer. If this is the case, you should be paying attention to how you’re feeling physically in order to tell if you should be seen by a doctor. One of the main things you should look for is a red, bullseye rash (also called erythema migrans) that can appear on the skin at the site of the tick bite. A rash like this can show up anywhere from 3–30 days after the initial bite. It looks like a solid, red oval or a bullseye, with a central red spot, a clear circle surrounding that, and then a wide red circle on the outside. Without treatment, it’s common for the rash to expand (which is a sign that the infection is spreading in your skin tissue). There are also smaller rashes that can crop up between three and five weeks after you’ve been bitten. These rashes can look different in appearance and can show up as red blotches, raised rashes, or blisters. Even if you don’t notice a rash on your body, you could still have contracted Lyme disease, because a rash only occurs in 60%–90% of cases. If you have any type of rash like this, it’s a good idea to let a doctor evaluate it to see if it’s related to Lyme.
Extreme fatigue is also a major red flag that you might have contracted Lyme disease. This severe tiredness and lack of energy is different than typical fatigue, because it can’t be attributed to overexertion or a specific activity. If you feel tired and don’t know why, and even a nap or sleeping more doesn’t help, you could have Lyme disease. Fatigue from Lyme can be cyclical and can change in its severity every couple of weeks. Please note: some people are misdiagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome or depression when they report these symptoms. So be sure to notify your doctor if you think you might actually have Lyme disease.
Many Lyme disease patients also suffer from joint pain. This might involve achy, stiff or swollen joints that are inflamed, painful or warm to the touch. Some people also report limited range of motion in these affected joints. With Lyme disease, you might find that the pain moves around. One day your knees can be hurting, and the next day your neck is stiff. This transitory pain and the severity of pain can differ between patients. Most of the time, the large joints in the body provide the biggest problems, and more than one joint is affected. Lyme disease patients often note that the first episode of joint pain occurred within the first six months of getting bitten. To avoid a misdiagnosis of arthritis, notify your doctor of your concerns of a Lyme infection.
If you’ve started to have symptoms that mimic the flu (such as headaches, dizziness, fever, muscle pain, malaise etc.), this could also be an indicator of Lyme disease. About half of Lyme disease patients have these flu-like symptoms within the very first week of being infected. You can tell that these symptoms aren’t a typical flu or virus if they come and go instead of being constant. These symptoms, coupled with a bullseye rash or joint pain, could demonstrate to a doctor that you may have contracted Lyme disease.
There are a variety of other symptoms that are less obvious or straightforward. For example, you might notice that you’re experiencing a lot of sleep disturbances or having night sweats. In addition, some people with Lyme can start to experience cognitive difficulties that can include problems with concentration, memory lapses or periods of confusion. In cases of chronic Lyme, patients can also have loss of balance, facial palsy or sensitivity to light. It’s also quite common for Lyme disease patients to see significant changes in their mood, such as showing signs of irritability, rage, anxiety or depression.
If you’re experiencing some (or all) of these symptoms, it’s critical for you to consult with a doctor. They can then rule out any other possible diagnoses, test for Lyme disease, and get you on an appropriate treatment regimen right away. Don’t hesitate to get checked out by a doctor – the quicker you can get treated, the sooner you’ll feel better!