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Back To Vidyya Lyme Disease


Introduction & Diagnosis

Introduction

Lyme disease is an infection caused by the corkscrew-shaped bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi that is transmitted by the bite of deer (Ixodes scapularis) and western black-legged (Ixodes pacificus) ticks. The deer tick, which normally feeds on the white-footed mouse, the white-tailed deer, other mammals, and birds, is responsible for transmitting Lyme disease bacteria to humans in the northeastern and north-central United States. On the Pacific Coast, the bacteria are transmitted to humans by the western black-legged tick.

From left to right: Ixodes scapularis adult female, adult male, nymph, larva on centimeter scale

From left to right: The deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) adult female, adult male, nymph, and larva on a centimeter scale.

Ixodes ticks are much smaller than common dog and cattle ticks. In their larval and nymphal stages, they are no bigger than a pinhead. Adult ticks are slightly larger. Ticks feed on blood by inserting their mouth parts (not their whole bodies) into the skin of a host animal. They are slow feeders: a complete blood meal can take several days. As they feed, their bodies slowly enlarge.


Risk: The number of annually reported cases of Lyme disease in the United States has increased about 25-fold since national surveillance began in 1982, and a mean of approximately 12,500 cases annually were reported by states to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 1993-1997. In the United States, the disease is mostly localized to states in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and upper north-central regions, and to several counties in northwestern California. National Lyme disease risk map

Most B. burgdorferi infections are thought to result from periresidential exposure to infected ticks during property maintenance, recreation, and leisure activities. Thus, individuals who live or work in residential areas surrounded by woods or overgrown brush infested by vector ticks are at risk of getting Lyme disease. In addition, persons who participate in recreational activities away from home such as hiking, camping, fishing and hunting in tick habitat, and persons who engage in outdoor occupations, such as landscaping, brush clearing, forestry, and wildlife and parks management in endemic areas may also be at risk of getting Lyme disease.


Clinical Characteristics

Lyme disease most often presents with a characteristic "bull's-eye" rash, erythema migrans, accompanied by nonspecific symptoms such as fever, malaise, fatigue, headache, muscle aches (myalgia), and joint aches (arthlagia).Bull's-eye rash (erythema migrans) The incubation period from infection to onset of erythema migrans is typically 7 to 14 days but may be as short as 3 days and as long as 30 days. Some infected individuals have no recognized illness (asymptomatic infection determined by serological testing), or manifest only non-specific symptoms such as fever, headache, fatigue, and myalgia.

Lyme disease spirochetes disseminate from the site of the tick bite by cutaneous, lymphatic and blood-borne routes. The signs of early disseminated infection usually occur days to weeks after the appearance of a solitary erythema migrans lesion. In addition to multiple (secondary) erythema migrans lesions, early disseminated infection may be manifest as disease of the nervous system, the musculoskeletal system, or the heart.

Early neurologic manifestations include lymphocytic meningitis, cranial neuropathy (especially facial nerve palsy), and radiculoneuritis. Musculoskeletal manifestations may include migratory joint and muscle pains with or without objective signs of joint swelling. Cardiac manifestations are rare but may include myocarditis and transient atrioventricular blocks of varying degree.

B. burgdorferi infection in the untreated or inadequately treated patient may progress to late disseminated disease weeks to months after infection. The most common objective manifestation of late disseminated Lyme disease is intermittent swelling and pain of one or a few joints, usually large, weight-bearing joints such as the knee. Some patients develop chronic axonal polyneuropathy, or encephalopathy, the latter usually manifested by cognitive disorders, sleep disturbance, fatigue, and personality changes. Infrequently, Lyme disease morbidity may be severe, chronic, and disabling. An ill-defined post-Lyme disease syndrome occurs in some persons following treatment for Lyme disease. Lyme disease is rarely, if ever, fatal.

Diagnosis: The diagnosis of Lyme disease is based primarily on clinical findings, and it is often appropriate to treat patients with early disease solely on the basis of objective signs and a known exposure. Serologic testing may, however, provide valuable supportive diagnostic information in patients with endemic exposure and objective clinical findings that suggest later stage disseminated Lyme disease. When serologic Western immunoblot testing is indicated, CDC recommends testing initially with a sensitive first test, either an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) or an indirect fluorescent antibody (IFA) test, followed by testing with the more specific Western immunoblot (WB) test to corroborate equivocal or positive results obtained with the first test.

Although antibiotic treatment in early localized disease may blunt or abrogate the antibody response, patients with early disseminated or late-stage disease usually have strong serological reactivity and demonstrate expanded WB immunoglobulin G (IgG) banding patterns to diagnostic B. burgdorferi antigens. Antibodies often persist for months or years following successfully treated or untreated infection. Thus, seroreactivity alone cannot be used as a marker of active disease. Neither positive serologic test results nor a history of previous Lyme disease assures that an individual has protective immunity. Repeated infection with B. burgdorferi has been documented. B. burgdorferi can be cultured from 80% or more of biopsy specimens taken from early erythema migrans lesions. However, the diagnostic usefulness of this procedure is limited because of the need for a special bacteriologic medium (modified Barbour-Stoenner-Kelly medium) and protracted observation of cultures.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) has been used to amplify genomic DNA of B. burgdorferi in skin, blood, cerobro-spinal fluid, and synovial fluid, but PCR has not been standardized for routine diagnosis of Lyme disease.


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Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
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