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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


CDC: 300,000 Treated for Lyme Each Year


August 21, 2013

News Review From Harvard Medical School

August 21, 2013

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- CDC: 300,000 Treated for Lyme Each Year

The United States has 10 times as many Lyme disease cases each year as the official numbers report. That's the conclusion of new research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the CDC each year. But 3 new studies suggest that doctors actually diagnose and treat about 300,000 cases a year. One study is based on medical insurance claims. One uses a survey of clinical laboratories that test for Lyme disease. The third study looks at self-reported Lyme disease, based on a survey of the public. CDC officials were not surprised that their official numbers had been low. They presented their early estimates, based on the 3 studies, at a conference on tick-borne diseases. Final estimates will be published when the studies are completed. HealthDay News wrote about the research August 19.

 

By Reena L. Pande, M.D.
Harvard Medical School

 

What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

New research suggests that Lyme disease is much more common than we had thought. In fact, research released this week suggested that as many 300, 000 Americans get Lyme disease each year. These numbers make Lyme disease 10 times more common than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had reported in the past. 

Lyme disease is spread by a bite from a deer tick. In the early stages of Lyme disease, symptoms may include:

  • Flu-like symptoms -- fevers, chills, swollen glands (lymph nodes), tiredness and headaches
  • Rash -- Lyme disease causes a very typical rash. The medical term is erythema migrans. It looks like a bull's eye pattern, with an outer red ring and a clear area inside it.

If left untreated, people can go on to develop other symptoms: 

  • Joint aches and pains
  • Meningitis -- inflammation of the lining around the brain, causing severe headaches and neck stiffness
  • Bell's palsy -- drooping of one or both sides of the face
  • Heart problems -- Inflammation of the heart can lead to heart block, which causes a slower than normal heart rate. Symptoms may include a lightheaded feeling or fainting.

A small number of people have symptoms that develop and last long after the initial tick bite. These can include:

  • Arthritis
  • Long-term nerve problems, such as shooting pains, numbness or tingling of the hands or feet
  • Fatigue

 

What Changes Can I Make Now? 

Be aware. Know the parts of the country where Lyme disease is most commonly seen. Lyme disease is reported most often in the Northeast and upper Midwest regions of the United States. However, increasingly Lyme disease is being seen in other parts of the country as well.

You can help to prevent tick bites. This is the best way to avoid Lyme disease.

  • Use a bug spray that includes either DEET or permethrin, ingredients that repel ticks.
  • Do a full-body check to remove any ticks, especially in hard-to-see and hard-to-reach spots (behind the knees, in the hair, around the waist).

If you think you have been bit, or you have symptoms, seek medical treatment. Early treatment of Lyme disease with antibiotics is very effective. Most people recover completely. Antibiotics can even be given at the first sign of a tick bite to prevent Lyme disease in the first place.

 

What Can I Expect Looking to the Future? 

It comes as no surprise that newer studies show Lyme disease is more common than we had thought. Early estimates depended on doctors to report numbers to the CDC or required a positive blood test (which is not done in all cases). Better reporting of Lyme disease helps to make people more aware that this is a real public health concern. It makes researchers more likely to look for better ways to prevent and manage Lyme disease. And that is a good thing.

 

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