Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is one of the more notorious spring and summer ailments in the Northeast. Parents teach their kids from an early age to do a “tick check” whenever they come in from the outside, and people are always on the lookout for the iconic bull’s-eye rash. But how much do you really know about the disease? Does it always show up with the bull’s-eye rash? What’s the treatment? Just how dangerous is it?

We spoke with Michael Lasser, M.D., Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Hudson Valley Hospital Center, to get the facts about Lyme disease.

What, exactly, is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is a systemic illness that is transmitted through a tick bite from a deer tick infected with Lyme disease. The organism that causes Lyme disease, the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, is transferred when you are bitten.

Can you catch it from your pets?

The vector is the tick. Classically your dog carries it. But a cat can carry it, too. The tick could even come in from the outside on a child and they could sit next to you and the tick could migrate to your body. But it is much more typical for the tick to be on a furry animal. Ticks like to keep warm.

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?

You might present with the classic bull’s-eye rash – families have noticed the rash in about 50 percent of children who get Lyme disease. Other people might experience fever, a headache, virus-like symptoms, or achy joints. Lyme disease has three stages. In the primary stage it’s more like a flu-like illness, and then it can go dormant. In the secondary stage, you could have issues like swollen joints. It can also interfere with your energy level. The thing we worry most about is stage three, when you have neurological problems. People can have Bell’s palsy, or issues with their concentration, focus and thinking.

How do you treat Lyme disease?

Lyme disease responds very, very well to antibiotics. We use amoxicillin in young children and doxycycline in children over age 8 and adults. If you don’t diagnose Lyme disease until two or three years after you’ve become ill, it’s a little more difficult to eradicate, but even then the antibiotics will destroy it. Although someone who has been ill for a very long time may have experienced some symptoms that are harder to eliminate.

What’s the best form of prevention for Lyme disease?

Unfortunately, the best prevention is not going outside. Apart from that, the best prevention is to wear long pants and to tuck your pants into your socks. Also, you should do a very, very diligent tick check every day.

When is Lyme disease most prevalent?

The prime season for catching Lyme disease is June and July. However, there also seems to be a very small peak in December. You see most of your Lyme disease cases in June, July and August, but then there’s a smattering of cases that show up in January.

Is there a vaccine to protect against Lyme disease?

The last vaccine that was put together for Lyme disease had problems. It came on the market very quickly and was taken off soon after. There is a vaccine for Lyme disease used for dogs, but at this moment, there is not a vaccine intended for human use. I’m sure some people are working on it. It would be a great thing.

Michael Lasser, M.D. is Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Hudson Valley Hospital Center. wmpny.com/pediatrics.asp.

David Neilsen is a frequent contributor to Westchester Family.