New tests in development could help to diagnose Lyme disease faster, but prevention is still the best policy.
Spring and summer are the height of tick season – those little nuisances are lurking on the tips of new grass, plants and shrubs “questing” for their next host to pass by. It takes a good 24-36 hours for a feeding tick to pass the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium that leads to Lyme onto you, and if that happens, your doctor may want to test you for the disease.
For 25 years, doctors have used the same standard method for testing and diagnosing Lyme disease: a two-step, indirect test that detects the antibodies created in response to the presence of Lyme bacteria.
Unfortunately, there are drawbacks. The test is most reliable a few weeks after an infection, after your body has had time to develop the antibodies the test is looking for.
When it comes to Lyme disease, “early diagnosis is important,” says Dr. Sean Cloonan, Infectious Disease specialist with Scarsdale Medical Group. Undetected and untreated Lyme disease can lead to a host of chronic conditions, including headaches, neck stiffness, severe arthritis, heart problems, nerve pain and problems with short-term memory.
Researchers are working on improved, quicker methods and PCR testing is the latest advancement in the detection of Lyme disease. Using a blood sample drawn from a joint, this test looks not for slow-building antibodies, but the presence of DNA from the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, leading to a much quicker result.
“It’s already used for a number of diseases, but PCR testing for Lyme disease isn’t FDA approved—and that lack of approval means something viable is missing,” says Dr. Cloonan.
Your doctor may opt to use PCR testing, but likely in conjunction with the current approved test. Depending on your symptoms, she might decide to begin treatment for Lyme disease even before the results come in.
So for now, the best way to fight Lyme disease is to avoid it in the first place. Take these steps with you on your next journey outdoors:
- When walking or hiking, stay away from tall bushes or grass where ticks wait for prey.
- Wear long pants and tuck them into white socks so you can spot crawling ticks more easily.
- Use products containing permethrin to treat your clothes and gear. While a number of consumer-friendly versions containing the insecticide claim to be fabric safe, it’s always a good idea to treat a test-patch first.
- Use an EPA-approved insect repellant such as DEET, picardin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, directly to the skin to repel ticks.
- The Department of Defense uses a double-whammy system of DEET and permethrin-coated clothing and gear to help servicemen avoid ticks and other nuisance insects.
While there’s some work involved in protecting yourself from ticks, and a lot of ongoing research to find the best approach to treatment, there is hope for those who are unlucky enough to get bitten. Dr. Cloonan points to a lack of research to support that the Lyme bacteria stays in the body forever.
To find a White Plains doctor who specializes in Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases, call 914-849-MyMD.