Expert Shares Facts

St. Petersburg Times

Expert shares facts on Lyme disease

Lucy Barnes has taken on Lyme disease, educating the public about how to avoid it and how to recognize and treat symptoms.

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

May is Lyme Disease Month. Floral City resident Lucy Barnes has been active in Lyme disease education since 1987, developing and presenting slide programs and lectures for the public, private organizations and medical personnel. She has written a number of articles and papers dealing with Lyme disease prevention, the symptoms, various treatments and related material.

Additionally, she has been assisting individuals who are fighting the chronic effects of the disease. Barnes shared some information with Citrus Times staff writer Mary Ann Koslasky.

QUESTION: What is Lyme disease and who is at risk?

ANSWER: Lyme disease is caused by a spirochete (similar to the one that causes syphilis and leprosy) found in ticks and other insects and numerous wild and domestic animals. Once transmitted to humans, the spirochete causes damage by spreading to various parts of the body. It can infect any and all organs and tissues in the body, causing a multitude of symptoms that can make a person very ill, sometimes totally disabled, and it can be fatal.

Q: Can it be transmitted from person to person?

A: The spirochete that causes Lyme disease has been found in semen, urine, blood, breast milk and other body fluids and tissues. Those who have Lyme disease are prohibited from donating blood or organs. Lyme disease has also been shown in many cases to be passed from mothers to their unborn children and to babies through breast milk. The spirochete can be found in the blood of deer which poses a threat to hunters and it is recommended that anyone handling raw venison use gloves.

Q: What are some of the signs and symptoms of the disease and its effects?

A: Unless a doctor is very experienced with Lyme disease, (he or she) may not recognize it until it is too late or not at all. Lyme has been misdiagnosed as a variety of other conditions: multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue, Alzheimer's, fibromyalgia and various forms of arthritis. The list of possible symptoms is overwhelming. Everything from hearing loss to panic attacks surfacing in otherwise healthy individuals as the first indication of Lyme. Some patients do not recall a tick bite and many never get the typical bull's-eye rash or flu-like symptoms that are often associated with early stages of Lyme. There is often brain "fog," memory problems, confusion, difficulty thinking and speech difficulties. Extreme fatigue can be a constant problem, along with muscle spasms and joint pain.

Q: Can it cause other diseases?

A: Lyme can mimic many diseases and can force the patient to require treatment for a variety of other problems. The thyroid responses can be thrown off and require adjunct therapy. Other infections are hard to fight off once the immune system is compromised. As the spirochetes inhabit and die off in the human body, toxins develop, which can cause a multitude of chronic problems unless treated properly.

Q: If caught early, can the effects be minimized?

A: Outdated information indicates a tick must be attached for at least 24 to 48 hours to infect a person. This is not the case. If you are bitten by a tick, the old wait-and-see approach can be devastating. Once in contact with an infected source, the earlier the treatment the better.

Q: What type of treatment is available and how long does it run?

A: Treatment protocols vary depending on the amount of time between the infection and when treatment begins. Current guidelines indicate early cases should be treated with antibiotics for a minimum of four to six weeks, and late stages usually require a minimum of four to six months of treatment, either IV or oral medications, or both. If treatments are discontinued before all symptoms of Lyme disease have ended, the person can remain ill and relapse.

Q: What are the long-term effects of Lyme disease?

A: Those who have developed late stage or chronic Lyme disease can suffer from the buildup of toxins in their systems. Patients can relapse with any and all of the original symptoms, develop new ones and progressively deteriorate as time goes by. Lyme disease can affect the ability to walk or exercise. Speech, writing skills and communication problems may worsen. Many become bedridden or house bound. Damage to the brain and other organs can result. The financial burden of Lyme can be devastating. Still, some insurance companies continue to deny treatment, which further stresses individuals and worsens their condition.

Q: What is the risk of Lyme disease in Florida?

A: Florida's very mild winter weather makes it optimal for year-round exposure to ticks and other insects carrying Lyme disease. The female tick can produce 2,000 to 5,000 babies. Once an area has a small tick population, the numbers increase rapidly. Ticks are carried into new areas by birds, pets, wildlife and people.

Q: What is the best way to prevent getting Lyme disease?

A: In Florida, it is difficult to do as folks in the north are told to do: wear long pants, long sleeve shirts, shoes and socks and a hat outdoors in the summer. In 90-degree weather, that is almost impossible and could cause heat stroke or heat exhaustion. I recommend regular tick checks while outdoors and once returning home. I also recommend a treatment of Repel Permanon be applied to outdoor clothing, hats, outdoor duffel bags and equipment. This unscented product kills ticks as they crawl across treated surfaces instead of trying to deter them. Yards can be treated with Sevin, available locally in a dust or concentrated liquid form. It won't kill all of the ticks but it will reduce the numbers to a safer level.