6 Lyme Disease Myths Debunked

PHOTO: Deer tick on fingernail
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Lyme disease affects 300,000 Americans each year, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- that's 10 times more people than previously thought. And the toll of the tick-borne disease isn't the only misconception.

Here are six myths about Lyme disease and its treatment debunked.

Myths About Lyme Disease

You can get Lyme disease anywhere in the U.S.

Ninety-six percent of all Lyme disease cases cluster in 13 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The bacterial disease spreads to humans from blacklegged ticks (but don't shoot the messenger -- the ticks pick up the bug Borrelia burgdorferi from deer and rodents). So if you live outside of the mid-Atlantic, northeast or north-central United States where blacklegged ticks thrive, your Lyme disease risk is really low.

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Myths About Lyme Disease

If you never had bulls-eye rash, you can't have Lyme disease.

Only 80 percent of Lyme disease cases come with the target-shaped skin rash known as erythema migrans -- latin for "migrating redness." And because the rash is migrating, you might miss it.

"It's not painful and it doesn't itch," said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert and chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt Medical Center, noting that the rashes center on bite sites that are often hidden on hairlines and in the underarms or groin area. "We may not even notice them."

Like most bacterial infections, Lyme disease can also cause fever, chills, headache, muscle and joint pain, and swollen lymph nodes, according to the CDC. So if you've been in an area known for Lyme disease and develop any of the above symptoms, visit a doctor.

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Myths About Lyme Disease

If you've been bitten by a tick, you have Lyme disease.

Not all ticks carry the Lyme-spreading bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, and not all bug-carrying ticks transmit Lyme disease.

"In most cases, the tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted," the CDC says on its website.

The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to avoid tick bites by wearing protective clothing and tick repellent. But the next best thing is to quickly spot and remove ticks from the body.

"Tweezers work best, but if you don't have tweezers you can use a tissue to firmly grasp and gently pull the tick off of the skin," said Schaffner, stressing that "old-timey" remedies that involve burning or suffocating ticks are less effective. "The longer the tick is in place, the more likely it is to transmit the Lyme organism to you. So finding it early and getting it removed is best."

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Myths About Lyme Disease

The tests for Lyme disease are usually wrong.

Blood tests for Lyme disease have "very good sensitivity," according to the CDC, meaning they're quite good at detecting antibodies produced by the body in response to the infection. But like most medical tests, they have their limitations.

Because the two tests look for antibodies, they can give false negative results during the first few weeks after exposure to the bacterium -- a window of time during which the body is still mounting its response to the infection. That's why the tests should be performed four to six weeks after a tick bite.

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Myths About Lyme Disease

The treatment for Lyme disease is long and painful.

The typical treatment for Lyme disease is a brief bout of oral antibiotics like doxycycline or amoxicillin, though patients with other medical conditions may need intravenous treatments, according to the CDC.

Most people recover from Lyme disease "rapidly and completely," the agency says on its website. But one in five patients battles persistent fatigue, pain, or joint and muscle aches -- a group of symptoms dubbed "post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome."

"The good news is that patients with PTLDS almost always get better with time," the CDC says. "The bad news is that it can take months to feel completely well."

Myths About Lyme Disease

A tick bite can cause chronic Lyme disease.

Although up to 20 percent of Lyme disease patients will have post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, most experts believe that it's the result of damage to tissues during the infection rather than a persistent infection.

"The concept of chronic Lyme is not accepted by the infectious disease community," said Schaffner.

Nevertheless, some doctors prescribe long bouts of intravenous antibiotics -- a treatment that has not been proven to quell the lingering symptoms.

"And people have been recorded as having substantial long-term effects from these treatments," Schaffner said.

If you have lingering symptoms after a tick bite, the CDC recommends talking to your doctor about ways to relieve the suffering.

"Your doctor may want to treat you in ways similar to patients who have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome," the agency says on its website. "This does not mean that your doctor is dismissing your pain or saying that you have these conditions. It simply means that the doctor is trying to help you cope with your symptoms using the best tools available."

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Click here for more information from the CDC.

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