The tick-borne illness is on the rise, in part due to climate change.

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
Jan 10, 2020 @ 7:30 pm
Instagram/@justinbieber

Justin Bieber confirmed earlier this week via Instagram that he has been secretly battling Lyme disease.

"While a lot of people kept saying Justin Bieber looks like sh*t, on meth etc. they failed to realize I've been recently diagnosed with Lyme disease," he wrote, adding that he will discuss the diagnosis during his upcoming docu-series, Justin Bieber: Seasons, which is set to air on YouTube Originals. He shared that he's also been dealing with "a serious case of chronic mono which affected my, skin, brain function, energy, and overall health."

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"It's been a rough couple years but getting the right treatment that will help treat this so far incurable disease and I will be back and better than ever," he added. 

Bieber isn’t the first celebrity to discuss his struggle with Lyme. In the past, Shania Twain, Alec Baldwin, Avril Lavigne, and Yolanda Hadid have also opened up about their experiences with the disease. Their diagnosis stories are varied; Twain, for instance, told InStyle she saw the tick fall off of her, whereas it took months for Lavigne to pinpoint the cause of her symptoms. “I thought I was dying,” Lavigne said in an interview with People.

RELATED: Yolanda Hadid Tells Us How Gigi, Bella, and Anwar Saved Her Life

And celebs, of course, aren't the only ones suffering. The number of reported cases of Lyme disease in the United States has tripled since the late 1990s, according to a 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A number of factors may continue to contribute to increasing Lyme disease numbers, including suburban development that has led to reforestation and closer contact with tick-carrying animals. Another huge factor? Climate change — which has allowed ticks to survive in a more widespread area, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), therefore increasing a person’s chance of being bitten by a Lyme-infected tick.

Its unpredictability makes learning about Lyme disease that much more important. Ahead, your complete guide to the tick-borne illness — including how you get Lyme disease and the symptoms you absolutely shouldn’t ignore.

VIDEO: Yolanda Hadid on Lyme Disease and Wanting to Give Up

What Is Lyme Disease?

Here’s the quick version: Lyme disease is a tick-borne bacterial infection, explains Christina Wojewoda, M.D., a spokesperson for the College of American Pathologists.

More specifically, Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, according to the CDC. There are four types of Borrelia species that can cause the disease, and only two of the strains are found in the United States (the other two occur in Asia and Europe), explains Douglas P. Jeffrey, M.D., a family medicine doctor in Springfield, Oregon.

Interesting fact? “The disease is named after the city where it was first described, Lyme, Connecticut,” Dr. Jeffrey says.

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How Do You Get Lyme Disease?

In order to contract Lyme disease, you must be bitten by an infected black-legged tick. Note that the keyword here is “infected” — not every tick carries Lyme disease. As you might already know, ticks like to hang out on deer, but they are also known for living on other animals, including rodents, birds, and even the cats and dogs who live in your home (especially if they have access to the outside).

When a tick does attach to your body, it can cling on anywhere, but the tiny insects are often found on hard-to-reach (and see) areas, like your scalp, groin, behind your ears, under your armpits, and, yes, inside your belly button, according to the CDC

It typically takes 36 to 48 hours of the tick being attached to your body before it can pass along Lyme disease, which is why you’ll want to do a thorough check after spending time in tick-friendly environments, like the woods and grassy areas, or taking a trip to the local dog park with your furry friend. If you find a tick on your body, the CDC recommends removing it with a pair of fine-tipped tweezers.

And if you’re wondering, “Is Lyme disease contagious?” the answer is simple — no. “One person cannot give Lyme disease to another person," Dr. Wojewoda says.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Lyme Disease?

It can be tricky to nail down Lyme disease symptoms, according to Dr. Wojewoda, because they can vary depending on what stage of infection you are in.

“In the first month, a patient could have a fever, chills, headache, joint pain, and/or feel tired,” she says. “There is also a classic rash that can look like a bullseye that happens at the site of the tick bite in 70 to 80 percent of people.” (Side note: Several Lyme disease-dedicated organizations, like LymeLight Foundation, contradict this number, noting that less than half of infections lead to this rash.)

The rash, as you might have guessed by the “bullseye” description — is red and circular and can expand over time, Dr. Wojewoda explains. It’s important to reiterate, however, that not everyone who contracts Lyme disease will get the bullseye-like rash. This is why you should watch for the aforementioned symptoms of Lyme disease, as well as severe headaches, neck stiffness, drooping of one or both sides of the face, severe joint pain and swelling, an irregular heartbeat, and/or nerve pain, which are symptoms that can occur if the infection is left untreated, according to Dr. Wojewoda.

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How to Test for Lyme Disease

If you are experiencing any of the Lyme symptoms above, head to your healthcare provider stat for an exam.

If a classic bullseye rash is present, then they will be able to diagnose Lyme disease immediately, Dr. Wojewoda says. If you don’t have a rash, then your doctor will perform a two-part blood test to determine whether or not you have the infection. If the first test comes back positive or inconclusive, the second part of the test is necessary.

“Lyme disease should only be diagnosed when the first test is positive (or equivocal) and the second test is positive,” Dr. Wojewoda says. “Antibodies can take several weeks to develop (as a result of infection), so a patient may need to be retested if they test negative and the symptoms started recently.”

Other tests are available to test for Lyme disease, but Dr. Wojewoda says they are not approved by the CDC because there is no data to support their effectiveness. She added: “As a pathologist, I would caution anyone who receives a diagnosis of Lyme disease from a non-CDC approved test.” 

Dr. Wojewoda also cautions against receiving a Lyme disease diagnosis from a doctor who requests a test for the tick that was attached to you.

“If the tick is positive for Lyme disease, it doesn’t mean that it was attached long enough to transmit it to the patient,” she says. “And if the tick was negative, the patient could have been exposed to other ticks that they didn’t notice that were positive for Lyme disease and this gives a false sense of security.”

Bottom line: Only trust a Lyme disease diagnosis after having a CDC-approved blood test. Still suspect Lyme after a negative test? Make sure you revisit your doctor for a follow-up test.

How Do You Treat Lyme Disease?

The first course of treatment for Lyme disease is antibiotics, although the type your doc will prescribe will vary depending on your specific symptoms and how long you’ve been experiencing them, Dr. Wojewoda says.

Each stage of Lyme disease is treated with different antibiotics (whether it be type, dosage, length of treatment, or all three), Dr. Jeffrey notes. “In stage one, amoxicillin, doxycycline, cefuroxime, and axetil are considered equally effective for the treatment of early Lyme disease,” he says. 

If the disease is in its early stages, then treatment will typically take about 10 days. On the other hand, Lyme disease that has progressed can require a treatment that lasts anywhere from 20 to 60 days, according to Dr. Jeffrey. Advanced cases of Lyme disease may require hospitalization with antibiotics administered intravenously until a person is stabilized.

Everyone, of course, responds to treatment differently. Some people even experiencing something known as the Jarisch–Herxheimer reaction, which is when toxins related to Lyme disease leave the body and cause painful symptoms like headaches, fever, chills, and muscle aches. 

Yolanda Hadid has spoken candidly about her symptoms, as well as her prolonged struggle with the condition.

“Eleven counties, five states, 104 doctors later, I still wonder sometimes if I will ever be able to live a normal life again," Hadid explained at the Global Lyme Alliance gala in 2015. "I honestly don’t have the proper words in my vocabulary to describe to you the darkness, the pain, and the unknown hell I’ve lived these past four years.”

Hadid’s openness about her struggle even prompted Hailey Bieber to thank the entire family on Twitter for helping her find answers about her husband’s diagnosis.

"I wanna say a huge thank you to @YolandaHadid and @bellahadid and@GiGiHadid for bringing me so much clarity and information on Lyme disease and for helping answer my questions about course of action, symptoms etc," she wrote. "Love you 3 amazing women!"

The good news? For many people diagnosed with Lyme disease, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Lavigne — who showed her support for Bieber in an Instagram post — wrote that while “the bad days still come and go” there is hope. 

So Is Lyme Disease Curable?

In short, yes, Dr. Wojewoda says. 

“If people are treated appropriately in the early stages of the disease, they usually recover rapidly and completely,” she notes. “In a small percentage of cases, the tired feeling and muscle aches can last for more than six months.”

But while early treatment can lessen the severity of the disease, later stages of Lyme disease may prove more complicated. For some, “even if the infection has been eradicated,” symptoms like arthritis or even neurologic signs and symptoms can persist for months or even years, for Dr. Jeffrey explains.

This is considered chronic Lyme disease and, not unlike all cases of Lyme disease, will require a tailored treatment plan specific to a person’s symptoms and needs.

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