For those who have been affected by Lyme disease or those who understand the devastating problems the disease can cause (and want to avoid getting infected), winter may seem like a time of year when we can all breathe a little easier. Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the spirochete borrelia burgdorferi and is usually transmitted by deer ticks, but may also be transmitted by mosquitoes. Since ticks are generally more active in the warmer months and because we spend more time outdoors during those months, we tend to believe that the threat is over once the cold weather arrives. Unfortunately, there is evidence that we can’t let our guard down during any time of the year and that Lyme disease may be transmitted in ways unrelated to the great outdoors as well.
Myth Busting: Winter and Lyme Disease
You may have heard from physicians, government agencies, or other misinformed people that Lyme disease cannot be contracted in the winter. However, cases of winter Lyme have been recorded in at least 11 states, with Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania having the highest numbers. An average deer tick has a lifespan of two years and can survive even in cold climates. The Ixodes dammini tick, a type responsible for a large portion of Lyme disease cases, is known to still be active on winter days, particularly warmer ones.
If this is all true, then where did this myth come from? Well, the rate of infection does go down overall in the winter. This is due to a few factors, such as the stage of the tick and people wearing more clothing outdoors. Ticks generally bite in their nymphal stage, which is less common in winter. However, some adult ticks, like the western black-legged tick, are actually more active in the colder months (October through March) and populated areas where this occurs have up to a 5% infection rate. In other places like Canada, ticks increase in the winter, but are attracted mostly to animals and livestock. Regardless of where you live, the fact that: a) the number of cases is continually growing, b) people are being infected at all times of the year, and c) Lyme disease is spreading and now found in most parts of the United States (and many other parts of the world), are all good reasons to be on alert for tick bites even in the winter.
Lyme Disease and….Sex?
Can the reasons discussed above account for all of the winter Lyme cases? Can tick bites alone account for the epidemic we are seeing in the realm of roughly 500,000 new cases per year? Maybe not. Lyme disease is now twice more common than breast cancer and six times more common than HIV/AIDS. It has been suspected in the past that Lyme disease may be sexually transmitted. The theory behind this comes from the similarities between borrelia burgforferi and treponema pallidum, the bacterium that causes syphilis. They are eerily similar in structure and function. This may be more than just speculation, though.
A study published in the Journal of Investigative Medicine in 2014 revealed that spirochetes were found in the vaginal secretions of 100% of females with Lyme disease. For men, the percentage of Lyme patients with spirochetes in their semen was about 50%. Even more interesting was the evidence that couples who were both infected with spirochetes had the same strains present in the secretions, leading to the conclusion that Lyme disease may very well be sexually transmitted. And of course, this mode of transmission can happen at any time of the year. Pending further research, this may open up a whole new avenue of treatment and prevention.
Is it the flu or Lyme Disease?
One of the challenges of the Lyme disease threat continuing through the winter is that many of the symptoms overlap with colds or flues, which are common during the colder months. These overlapping symptoms include fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, stiff neck, headaches, fatigue, and muscle aches. Sometimes, but not always, a bull’s-eye rash (a circular, red rash) will appear after a tick bite, which could help differentiate between Lyme disease and a common cold or flu. More advanced cases of Lyme disease may result in facial paralysis, arthritis, and other nervous system problems. While these more chronic symptoms would lead to a better chance of correct diagnosis, it is also much harder to treat once it gets to the advanced stages.
The best form of prevention is to check carefully for ticks after you’ve been outside, even in the winter. Some experts recommend wearing tick repellent throughout the winter months as well. One other thing to be aware of is that even if you are well covered outside, pets can carry ticks indoors. Check your pets and home regularly, too. Spread the word that Lyme disease can be contracted during anytime of the year; and be watching for more research on the strong possibility that Lyme disease can be spread through sexual contact in addition to a tick bite.