Lyme disease sounds like something straight out of the middle ages, or even Game of Thrones. But trust us when we tell you, this disease is no joke, and it’s still very prevalent today: More than 300,000 new cases are diagnosed every year!
There are lots of common misconceptions about rashes, bug and tick bites, and Lyme disease in general, meaning there’s a lot of information to dispel out there. And since early diagnosis of Lyme disease is key to successful treatment, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to debunk five misconceptions about Lyme disease and rashes.
Curious what Lyme disease is? How it presents on the skin? What to do if you have a tick bite? Read on!
First of all, what is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, called Borrelia burgdorferi, and it’s transmitted when a person is bitten by an infected, black-legged tick, commonly known as a deer tick. Ticks can be found in wooded or grassy areas like parks, lawns, fields, nature preserves, campgrounds, and other outdoor areas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are approximately 329,000 new cases of Lyme disease each year. However (and unfortunately) Lyme disease mimics many other illnesses therefore the actual incidences of the disease are likely underreported.
Although the deer ticks are most active in the spring through the fall months, it’s possible to contract the illness year-round in places where the winters don’t dip below freezing temperatures. Previously, Lyme disease was thought to be most rampant in the Midwest and the Northeast. However, in 2016, nearly half of all counties in the US recorded ticks with Lyme disease, including areas of the country that were believed not to be affected by the illness. It’s a logial evolution — people, pets, other hosts for ticks, and ticks themselves are all moving objects, and this creates an ever-changing circumstance for people to come in contact with Lyme disease… even if you don’t live in a region of the country that’s considered a high-risk or an endemic area.
Some of the symptoms associated with Lyme disease include flu-like symptoms, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, insomnia, digestive issues, and sometimes, a neurological condition called Bell’s palsy (or facial drooping). These are just a few of the dozens of symptoms you may experience if you become infected with the Lyme bacteria.
Furthermore, many people associate Lyme disease with a bull’s-eye rash (erythema migrans or EM for short). Like its descriptive name implies, EM is a circular, red rash that may appear on the skin following a tick bite. While a classic presentation of this rash is the telltale sign that you’ve contracted Lyme disease, there’s a lot of confusion surrounding this illness and how it shows up on the skin.
Now that you understand what Lyme disease is, let’s debunk those five common myths about the disease.
Myth 1: Everybody who contracts Lyme disease gets a rash.
Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. If you’ve followed the struggles of celebrities like Yolanda and Bella Hadid, Ally Hilfiger, and Kelly Osbourne, one common thread that’s woven throughout their stories is that none of them reported seeing a rash. And BOTH Hilfiger and Osborne had known tick bites! According to the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS), a medical society that advocates for the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme and other tick-borne infections, less than half of people infected with Lyme disease recollect any rash at all. So yes, it’s possible to contract the bacteria and not have a rash.
Myth 2: Lyme disease rashes always look like a bull’s-eye.
Again, this is misinformation. ILADS states, more often than not, a rash takes on an atypical presentation — meaning it can show up in a variety of shapes and sizes that look nothing like the classic bull’s-eye form. These unusual-looking rashes may be mistaken as bites from mosquitoes, spiders, or other insects.
Myth 3: A rash only occurs if a tick has been attached to the skin for more than a day.
Outdated data on Lyme disease fosters the idea that a tick needs to be attached to a human for a minimum of 24 hours to become infected with the disease, and, subsequently, develop a rash. But, a 2015 study showed there was strong evidence to suggest Borrelia burgdorferi could be transmitted to humans in as little as six hours. Plus, ticks carry more than just one bacteria, and the transmission rates of these co-infections can happen much more quickly, making a bull’s-eye rash a poor predictor of how long a tick has been latched onto its host.
Myth 4: Rashes associated with Lyme disease are always itchy.
As stated earlier, a rash associated with Lyme disease may present itself in a variety of ways. However, these rashes are generally not itchy in comparison to other skin eruptions. Though, that said, a bull’s-eye rash may be warm to the touch.
Myth 5: A rash appears immediately after you’ve been exposed to a Lyme disease-carrying tick.
In the cases where rashes arise, Mayo Clinic explains, they’re most likely to emerge anywhere from three to 30 days after a tick has infected you. With a longer timeframe, it can be easy to forget what you were doing from one month to the next.
Were you hiking? Camping? Letting your dog play in a grassy field?
Try your best to remember these important details, so you can obtain a prompt diagnosis and a treatment plan if necessary.
What do I do if I suspect I have Lyme disease?
If you’ve been bitten by a tick, make sure it’s removed from your skin as soon as possible. The first thing is to check for common symptoms — try this checklist from LimeDisease.org. But most importantly, if you think or know you’ve been bitten, make sure that you consult with your doctor ASAP – even if your symptoms disappear.
It’s important to know that ticks carry many other infections as well, called co-infections, which can pose serious risks to your health. With or without a rash, if you think you may have been bitten by a tick, been exposed to Lyme disease, or are experiencing a new onset of symptoms, contact a healthcare provider who is familiar with the diagnosis and treatment of this complex medical condition. The quicker Lyme disease or an associated tick-borne infection is diagnosed, the better your chances are of making a full recovery.