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Lyme and Other Tick Borne Diseases: Am I At Risk in Colorado?

I recently provided acupuncture for some patients wrestling with Lyme disease--two of them chronic and one lucky one (just back from a trip to the East coast) being treated in the very early stages. I found myself thinking what a terrible disease this is, and how important it is that people understand how to detect it before it becomes too advanced. Living in Colorado I tend to get lazy; I know Lyme disease is rare here, and don’t generally feel like I need to worry. But is that true? I dug a little deeper to find out.

The majority of Lyme disease is reported on the East coast, but infections occur in north-central Midwest states as well as on the Pacific coast. About 30,000 cases are reported annually through the CDC, but the CDC estimates the actual number to be about ten times higher, due to failure to diagnose the illness. The disease is contracted through the bite of the blacklegged tick (also called deer tick), a tiny tick no bigger than a sesame seed, which then infects its host with the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi.

Now let me be clear: you do NOT want this disease! Early symptoms are flu-like, including fatigue, headache, joint swelling and dizziness. Seventy to eighty percent of Lyme patients will have a bulls-eye rash at the site of the bite. Other symptoms can include irregular heartbeat, nerve pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Chronic symptoms are much more insidious, as the Lyme pathogen makes it’s way deeper into the joints and organ systems, the brain and nervous system: symptoms may include chronic fatigue, swelling and joint pain, memory loss, headaches, cognitive decline, neuropathies, depression, insomnia and heart-related symptoms.

But are we at risk in Colorado? The answer appears to be controversial. There have only been 13 reported cases of Lyme in Colorado since 1990--and none of those cases appear to have originated from here. And yet--most of us have encountered someone living in this state who has been or is diagnosed with this disease.

So here’s what I think: while we may not be at significant risk for contracting Lyme within Colorado, some of us may be at particular risk for suffering from chronic infection. Why? First, it’s very hard to diagnose Lyme in the beginning; it takes four to five weeks for antibodies that fight Lyme to appear in the bloodstream, so most blood tests will be negative before that time. My patient with the acute Lyme disease initially tested negative. She told me that the only reason she was diagnosed was because the doctor she went to while still on her East coast trip had seen numerous Lyme cases.

Second, doctors do not see many cases of Lyme in Colorado; therefore they are not versed in accurate diagnosis. Because early symptoms of Lyme disease mimic many other illnesses including the common flu, doctors or urgent care medical workers do not consider the possibility of Lyme. Also, many do not consider ordering a blood test to rule out Lyme infection in patients reporting symptoms in later stages.

One of my patients was not diagnosed with Lyme for 17 years. I’ve known a handful of people here in Colorado who went for years with undiagnosed chronic Lyme disease who tell me they were told by doctors that they had Illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, autoimmune disease, arthritis, persistent insomnia and idiopathic neuropathy. And of course once the body’s systems are weakened with a parasite like Borrelia burgdorferi, other opportunistic infections and immune system suppression or over-reactions are much more likely to occur, even further disguising the source.

Finally, considering the amount of out of state travel, it’s unlikely that people are not picking up Lyme elsewhere and bringing it to Colorado. Even though Colorado appears to be a very low-risk state, the fact is: people travel, pets travel, and wildlife migrates. Check out the following article on Lyme patients in Colorado, featuring Monica White of Poncho Springs, Colorado whose entire family finally tested positive for Lyme.

So if you are someone who has traveled out of state in recent years (and particularly to the East coast) who suffers from symptoms that are suspiciously similar to Lyme disease, demand a test from your doctor.

And in the meantime, there are other tick-borne diseases as well. For a list of Colorado state reportable tick-borne disease, visit this site. If you plan on hiking a lot (or hanging about generally in nature) during active tick season, or are planning a trip to a state where Lyme disease is prevalent, then consider the following tips:

  1. It takes 36-48 hours for an infected tick bite to transmit Lyme disease. Because of this, early detection and removal of ticks is a key to prevention. Go here for the instructions on the proper removal of a tick.

  2. Peak tick season is April through September, but ticks are known to persist into colder weather and even snow. So be cautious even in cooler weather.

  3. Wear tight pants tucked into socks or shorts with longer socks...white or light-colored clothes are best as the ticks will be more visible. Braid long hair or pull it back tightly in a pony tail.

  4. Avoid walking through tall grass and bushy areas, or leaning against logs or trees.

  5. Perform tick checks daily after spending time outdoors. Important areas to check include the hairline, nape of neck, around the ears, armpits, groin area, behind the knees, in the navel and between toes. Shower when you get inside.

  6. CHECK PETS thoroughly after hanging out in a tick habitat. You may want to give your pet a bath before allowing them to sleep in your bed that night.

  7. Spray clothing with a natural tick repellent. Here is a link to a DIY bug spray recipe which is non-toxic and DEET free.

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