Early detection of disease is always important, but for some, it’s the only way to get effective treatment. One such condition is the tick-borne illness Lyme disease. Unfortunately, it’s very easy for the rash to be missed. The classic bull’s-eye pattern is common, but the rash can also look like contact dermatitis, lupus, insect or spider bites, or skin infections, or not be there at all. This means doctors often miss the disease, or aren’t consulted, and the patient doesn’t get proper treatment. Untreated Lyme disease can cause meningitis, facial paralysis, poor muscle control, or pain or weakness in the limbs, and this can happen months or even years after the initial infection.
This is why researchers are looking for better diagnostic techniques. One surprising one uses ticks—but not ticks infected with the Lyme disease bacterium. This xenodiagnosis, or using an animal to spot a disease in humans, essentially uses the uninfected ticks as bloodhounds, getting them to seek out signs of the presence of the bacteria. So far, the research has shown little actual success, but scientists say it does appear promising. If it can be properly developed, this method may help doctors determine if people have dormant infections, meaning they still harbor active bacteria even after all Lyme disease symptoms seem to have gone away.
Although ticks are primarily responsible for transmitting Lyme disease, there’s now some new evidence that not all cases are contracted in the woods. Samples taken from infected people and their spouses suggest that in some cases,Lyme disease might be sexually transmitted. Researchers say that there were signs of Lyme disease bacteria where one would expect to find bacteria that cause a sexually transmitted disease. One couple had identical bacteria, meaning either that they had been infected by the same tick—unlikely, given how short-lived ticks are—or one had infected the other.
Preventing Lyme disease is a better option than having to treat it: using insect repellant and covering exposed skin in tick-heavy areas such as woods, checking pets that have been playing outdoors, and promptly checking people who might have been exposed. Checking means looking closely and carefully for ticks and removing them, grasping them gently (so as not to crush them and make the bite worse) by the head with tweezers and pulling them off. If someone is infected, a course of antibiotics may be given, but it doesn’t always completely work.