As awareness of Lyme disease as a public health threat increases, so does the concern around its transmission and treatment. People are starting to realise the very real danger of Lyme infection, and they have a lot of questions, especially around alternative ways Lyme disease is transmitted.
Understanding the basics of Lyme transmission, diagnosis and treatment can go a long way in helping allay fears around this increasingly common disease. Let’s break down some of the most popular questions people have about Lyme disease.
How do you catch Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by a corkscrew-shaped bacterium known as Borrelia burgdorferi. It is typically transmitted to humans by Ixodes ticks, also known as black-legged or deer ticks. When ticks feed on rodents, other small mammals or certain birds that are infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the ticks themselves become infected. When a tick carrying Borrelia burgdorferi bites a human, the bacterium spreads from the tick to the bitten human, leading to Lyme disease.
Can you catch Lyme disease without a tick bite?
Although far less common than tick bites, there are some additional ways that Lyme is transmitted. Here are three alternative ways of transmission:
There is some evidence that Lyme disease can spread from a woman who is pregnant to her placenta, leading to potential complications. However, it appears that these problems can be avoided when the Lyme-infected mother receives antibiotic treatment for her Lyme disease. Lyme disease has not been found to be transmitted through breast milk.
Through a blood transfusion
Scientists have determined that the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease can live in the blood of an actively infected person even after it has been drawn and placed in storage. Although there are no known cases of Lyme infection through a blood transfusion, a person with Lyme disease who is receiving treatment should not give blood. After antibiotic treatment has been completed, however, Lyme patients may be eligible blood donors.
Scientists are very much at odds over whether Lyme disease can be transmitted sexually. While some research indicates that Lyme bacteria may be passed from person to person during sex, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that there is no credible evidence supporting the claim that Lyme disease can be transmitted through sexual contact.
What should you do if you’ve been bitten by a tick?
Because tick bites are the main way that Lyme disease is transmitted, taking precautions to avoid being bitten can be your first line of defence. Some of the ways to protect yourself from ticks are:
- Avoid wooded areas, long grass, fallen logs and other tick habitats.
- If you’re going to be in an area where you may be exposed to ticks, dress protectively. Wear a hat, long-sleeved shirt and long trousers tucked into your socks. If you have long hair, pull it back.
- Use tick repellent. Active ingredients that have been shown to repel ticks include DEET, picaridin and lemon eucalyptus.
- Check for ticks periodically while outdoors, and take a shower as soon as you get home.
If you’ve been bitten by a tick, do your best to remain calm. Avoid methods like smearing Vaseline on the tick or burning it with a match, as neither of these works to remove the tick. Instead, follow these steps:
- Take care to avoid squeezing or squashing the tick.
- Using a tweezers with a fine point or a special tool designed to remove ticks, grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible.
- Steadily and firmly pull the tick straight out.
- Once the tick is out, disinfect the bite area and wash your hands thoroughly.
- Place the tick in a small bottle or plastic bag. If it’s still alive (which is preferable for identification purposes), add a small green leaf or damp tissue to the container.
- Explore your options for having the tick tested.
How do you know if you have Lyme disease?
After you’ve been bitten for a tick, it’s important to watch for symptoms of Lyme disease so you can seek treatment as soon as possible. Symptoms of early Lyme disease include:
- An expanding red rash that sometimes resembles a bullseye or target
- Headaches and neck stiffness
- Joint pain and swelling
- Weakness or paralysis of facial muscles
- Lightheadedness or fainting
- Heart palpitations or chest pain
Seek medical attention immediately if you experience any or all of these symptoms of Lyme disease. The sooner the disease is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances of treating it successfully.
Knowing you’re at risk for Lyme disease can be scary, especially when the disease seems to be spreading so rapidly. But arming yourself with knowledge about Lyme disease and the different ways it’s transmitted can help you be more aware of what you need to do to protect yourself.