"I'm a doctor - but not the kind that helps people," goes the joke among PhDs. I help birds and butterflies and milkweed, but I am definitely not qualified to make a medical diagnosis or provide medical advice to humans. That being said, I thought I'd share my experience to raise awareness and encourage you to get checked by a qualified medical professional if you ever think you might have Lyme disease!
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium that is transmitted by blacklegged ticks (AKA deer ticks). But most people who get Lyme disease don't remember having been bitten by a tick. That's because blacklegged tick nymphs are the size of a poppy seed, and even the adults are only the size of a sesame seed, so you might never notice that one is attached to you. (Larvae are even smaller, but won't likely carry the bacterium until the first time they feed on an infected host.) Female blacklegged ticks overwinter as adults, and can be active (and seeking hosts) any time it's above freezing - so no time of year is safe!
Lyme disease is common in Wisconsin, and the rest of the Upper Midwest and Northeastern U.S. Our dog tested positive for Lyme disease this spring during her annual checkup; luckily she didn't seem affected by it (perhaps because she'd been vaccinated, which helps reduce symptoms even if it's not 100% effective against catching the disease), but that was clear evidence that Lyme is around.
We also know there are plenty of ticks around. No matter how carefully we clean ourselves and the dog after a hike, we occasionally find a tick on the couch or crawling up the wall. As it happens, I found a tick buried in my scalp last week. It was an American dog tick, which cannot carry Lyme disease, but it brought home the point that nowhere is safe. That day, and the few days previous, I hadn't been out in the woods or long grass or anything. I'd biked around on paved roads and stood on a mowed lawn for a couple of minutes looking for a bird, but that was it. But all it takes is for a tick to drop off a mouse while it's running through that mowed lawn, and then for me to encounter that tick.
A dog tick can't carry Lyme disease, but apparently I picked up a blacklegged tick sometime in the last few weeks, too. I felt fine until last Saturday, which is when I biked up that big hill to look for Bobolinks. It was a big hill, but otherwise not a long ride (23 miles - not a whole lot longer than the 14 miles I bike to/from work every day), and I was surprised by how tired I felt afterwards. I was basically useless the rest of the day.
The next day, we went for a family adventure (boyfriend, dog, and I), which was an easy walk; and while I still felt tired, I managed the walk just fine. But after we got home, I felt exhausted the rest of that day, too. Even if biking that hill had taken more out of me than expected, I should have been feeling better by the next day.
When I still felt exhausted on the third day, it was clear that something unusual was going on. I felt like my limbs weighed twice as much as usual, and so did my eyeballs, and my brain was running at half or quarter speed. I also had the occasional hour when I felt fine, so it was a sneaky sort of illness. I've felt fatigue like that before when I've had the flu (but without those interspersed periods of feeling fine); and sometimes for a few hours or a day at most when I'm getting a cold. But it's the wrong time of year for the flu. I also had some odd headaches on and off, and a weird tightness in the back of my head/neck. Much of this would have been easy to pass off as nothing, especially if I had other reasons to be tired, like if I'd done a really long ride or hadn't been sleeping enough.
But I knew that fatigue is one of the first symptoms of Lyme disease. A bull's-eye rash is the classic symptom you hear about, but not everyone gets it. I'm also guessing my scalp is the most likely place I was bitten by the blacklegged tick - I barely found even the much larger dog tick there, buried in my hair - and I would never see a rash there. I did have a weird tingling feeling on various parts of my scalp over a couple of days - maybe that was related, or maybe not.
Mainly due to the unexplained fatigue, I went to get checked out that third day. The doctor-that-helps-people checked me for anemia (no sign of that), ordered a thyroid test just in case (also clear), and decided that I most likely had Lyme disease. The blood test does not usually show positive in the first few weeks after exposure, so the doctor said it wasn't worth running the test at all - instead, given my symptoms and how common the disease is around here (especially this time of year), he said it made sense to go ahead and treat for it.
The test will detect antibodies to the Lyme-causing bacterium if more time passes without treatment. But, complications of the disease also become much worse if left untreated. Chronic Lyme disease sounds terrible - nerve damage, arthritis, muscle tics, heart palpitations, and other recurring problems for the rest of your life! But when treated early, which is easy and requires only a fairly mild antibiotic, Lyme disease usually clears right up with no problem. I started feeling considerably better after 24 hours. In the few days since, I've still had some periods of fatigue, but they're becoming less frequent and less extreme - so I'm well on my way to a full recovery.
The moral of the story is: if you think you might have symptoms of Lyme disease, especially if you live in an area where it's common, don't wait to get checked out!