Is Lyme disease the new Plague?

The study I read today almost sounds like a plot for a creepy sci-fi movie.

It went something like this: “Black-legged ticks are spreading a vector-borne illness throughout the US, infecting thousands.”

The horrifying thing is, it’s not a movie plot. It’s actually happening. If you are bitten by one of these little suckers and you don’t catch it in time, it can squeeze every drop of life out of you.

The story came from the August issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, and it’s referring, of course, to Lyme disease. This condition has spread considerably in the past 20 years or so. And the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently released a report stating Lyme disease is now spreading into several new US territories—and cases are rising at an alarming rate.

The northeastern states have historically had a high incidence, but in the last two decades, confirmed cases in this region have increased even more dramatically—up by 320%. And a similar increase has occurred in the north-central states. Cases there are up by 250%.

The reason for the sharp rise isn’t clear, but experts suspect it may have something to do with climate change, as well as a boom in residential development. Warmer temperatures encourage the ticks to breed, and when wooded areas are cleared for building, the deer— and ticks that go with them—migrate into new areas.

But whatever the cause, Lyme disease isn’t something you should brush off. In fact, any tick-borne illness can cause life-long problems. That’s why it’s so important to get diagnosed early. And since I live in New York—which is surrounded by areas inhabited by Lyme-carrying ticks—I test every patient I see for Lyme disease. Whether or not they’ve ever had the bulls-eye rash typically associated with the condition.

You see, about 25% of people who are infected with Lyme disease don’t get that telltale rash. And, unfortunately, if a rash doesn’t show up, many conventional doctors may miss this serious condition. In fact, it always surprises me how many of my patients have never been tested by their primary care doctor for Lyme.

Here’s some important information you should know:

Deer ticks are nearly impossible to detect with the naked eye. They’re about the size of a poppy seed and can very easily be missed. But, if you do find one on your body, remove it immediately with tweezers. And remember the date you found the tick, because it could be important later on.

The telltale bull’s eye rash is the most obvious sign. It usually develops within 1-4 weeks after being bitten. But, as I said, not everyone presents with this. The rash can get larger over time, and it is not usually itchy or painful.

Even before the rash may appear, the most common symptom is a lack of energy and lethargy. Some people then go on to have flu-like symptoms.

If Lyme disease isn’t detected and treated while these early symptoms are present, the infection may spread to other areas of the body, and you could end up with even worse symptoms. Things like rashes all over your body, headaches, painful joints, numbness in your limbs, cloudy thinking, pink eye, Bells palsy (facial paralysis) and heart palpitations—just to name a few.

And unfortunately, if you indeed have a case of Lyme disease and it’s not treated properly after experiencing some of these later symptoms, things can get even worse. Months or years down the road, you may suffer damage to the joints, nerves, eyes and brain.

So, if you live in an endemic area, or have visited one, especially in the summer months, then you should get tested. I can’t tell you how many people come to see me complaining of joint aches, malaise, and fatigue and have been to see many doctors before me without any answers. But after I test them it turns out to be Lyme. (And all too often, even if your doctor does test you for Lyme, he or she won’t test you for the other co-infections that can present along with Lyme, such as babesiosis or erlichisosis. Both of which can often cause life-long debilitating illness.)

If a patient tests positive for Lyme, I treat them with several months of antibiotics. Yes, months. The conventional protocol calls for just two weeks of treatment. But I’ve found a longer course to be far more effective. And, as you know, I don’t prescribe antibiotics lightly…I wouldn’t put my patients through a rigorous protocol like this if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

The good news is, with this sort of intensive treatment, they do get better. And you can too, if you’re diagnosed with Lyme. But this is another instance where you have to be your own health advocate. So keep an eye out for the symptoms I described above. If you notice any of them, please go to a doctor and get tested. Lyme is very serious and shouldn’t be ruled out until some other condition is confirmed.


“Geographic Distribution and Expansion of Human Lyme Disease, United States,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 2015; 21(8)

“High-risk areas for Lyme disease growing, CDC says,” CBS News (, 7/21/15