Knowledge, awareness help fight against Lyme disease
If left untreated, Lyme disease infection can spread to the joints, the heart and the nervous system.
ALEXANDRIA — It's tick season again, and local experts are advising people to be aware of them and the illnesses they carry — especially Lyme disease.
"We're seeing so many ticks," said Aimee Goodwin, CEO of New Hope Healing and Resource Center in Alexandria, which treats Lyme disease.
"I think there's sort of a perfect storm," Goodwin said. "I think there are more ticks this year, and partially I think that's because we had such a long, cool spring. A huge misconception for people is they think ticks come out in the summertime. The real truth is that ticks don't really like that hot, hot weather. They like cool weather. They're much more active in the spring and the fall."
Additionally, people are outdoors more, in part to clean up after the recent storms and in part because winter was so long, Goodwin said.
"We're seeing a lot of acute cases come in," she said. "We're getting calls from all over the state of Minnesota."
The earlier someone can be treated for Lyme, the better, Goodwin said.
"Lyme is very easy to eradicate in the early stages when it's vulnerable, so that's why it's important to catch it quickly," she said. "When you do what we do and you see what a monster this disease can turn into, how it can ruin people's lives … you get real passionate about getting ahead of it so we can stop it."
Lyme disease is predominantly spread through deer tick bites, and symptoms can include fever, headache, fatigue and a skin rash called erythema migrans.
If left untreated, infection can spread to the joints, the heart and the nervous system.
One of the most important things to do if you get a tick is to identify what type it is, said Tim Montag, PA-C with New Hope.
"A lot of people take off the tick and just toss it," Montag said. "We've got to know what kind of tick it was, because that's really important so we know we're dealing with the possibility for Lyme disease."
If the tick is attached, you need to remove it correctly, Goodwin said.
"You don't want to burn it, you don't want to put oil on it," she said. "You don't want to do anything that will stress that tick out, because it will then vomit in your bloodstream, which makes you have a higher chance of getting sick."
Instead, you should grab the tick with a pair of tweezers, and twist and pull at the same time, she said.
Following that, you should put it in a bag with the date on it, and put it in the freezer so you can keep it in case you get a reaction, Goodwin said.
Reactions are another important thing to be aware of, she said.
"Even if you have redness, even if you have any of those classic post-Lyme symptoms, flu-like symptoms, even nausea, even exhaustion. Anything that's not normal for you. If you just feel a little off, then that's something that we need to get addressed," she said.
Additionally, the tick can be mailed to one of several laboratories to be tested for illness.
Montag said that if you do develop symptoms after a tick bite, see it through to the end.
"Make sure the symptoms have completely resolved and that there's nothing residual," he said.
If they're not treated completely, the symptoms can get much worse and last a long time, he said.
"The same kind of thing happens with a large number of cases," Montag said. "Someone is inadequately treated and doesn't see it all the way through. There's a fairly large percentage of people who will develop chronic debilitating symptoms from it."
Sometimes, if a patient comes to see a doctor after being bitten by a tick, they will receive only one dose of antibiotics, Montag said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a patient should have a three-week course of antibiotics. New Hope provides a four-week course.
"That treatment plan of prevention with one dose is, from my experience, not effective," Montag said. "It's really important to make sure that if we're treating for Lyme that we're not simply giving a quick dose and thinking that they're okay, because chances are, they're probably not."
Lyme disease is something with which Goodwin has firsthand experience. In 2005, she was a young mother who was healthy and went to the gym four days a week. Then things changed."One day at the gym I had a weird tremor in my knee," she said. "It was the strangest thing. It was enough to get me off the treadmill. I thought I injured myself. From that point, Lyme progressed very quickly."
Goodwin suffered muscle weakness, joint pain, muscle pain and extreme exhaustion which progressed to the point where it took over her life.
"The pain really bent me," she said. "It changed my life. I have no doubt that if I wouldn't have seen a doctor who knew how to help me, I don't think I'd be here."
Initially, Goodwin couldn't get a satisfactory diagnosis as to what was causing her symptoms. Then her mother heard a woman on the radio who was advocating for Lyme disease awareness.
"She said, 'You've got to check this out. This is what's going on with you,'" Goodwin said.
In doing her own research on the subject, Goodwin found a documentary called "Under Our Skin," which is about Lyme disease.
"Those were my people," she said. "That was really the first time I'd really seen anyone who had a story similar to my own."
Goodwin was treated by a doctor in California, whom she credits with saving her life.
By the time she went to see him, Goodwin was dragging a leg, she had lost the ability to control her throat and voice, and she was losing the cognitive thought between her hand and her brain to the point where she had to think of each individual letter before she wrote it.
"I really thought I was going to die before I knew what was wrong with me," she said.
Today, she has her life back and is able to do just about anything she wants, she said.
That includes her work at New Hope, which she started almost four years ago, and focuses on both physical and mental health.
"One of the highs that we do here is helping people who are very sick get better," she said. "Even more than that is having somebody sit on my couch … and having them become emotional because somebody is finally listening to them."
According to the CDC, an estimate based on insurance records suggests that each year approximately 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease.
Goodwin thinks the real number may be even greater since Lyme disease is often misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gherig's disease, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, among other diseases.
Another thing people may be unaware of is the additional ways the disease can spread. Although it's more rare, Lyme disease can be transmitted through other sources than ticks.
Goodwin suspects her own case of Lyme disease came from a spider bite.
"I had a spider bite me about a month before I got sick," she said. "I had the classic Lyme reaction and just didn't know better."
Awareness is a major priority, which is why New Hope started a campaign called Play, Check, Repeat back in May which encourages people to check for ticks after they've been outside, and then to check again later.
Knowledge and awareness are two of the biggest weapons against Lyme disease, Goodwin said.
"Being aware of the ticks and knowing what to do if you encounter one can literally change your life course," she said. "Lyme took so much from me. There's so many things I missed out on, so many things I couldn't do, that I refuse to let Lyme take anything from me anymore."