Summer is here, meaning more time spent outside—bringing health benefits as we engage in more activity. Those same outdoor activities, however, also carry the risk of tick exposure—and the tick-borne illnesses, including Lyme disease, they’re known to carry. With an average of 300,000 Lyme cases tracked by the CDC each year, Massachusetts has already seen more than 89 tick-borne disease diagnoses in emergency departments this year, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Allen Steere, MD, lead investigator at the Center for Immunology and Inflammatory Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), has been on the front lines of Lyme research since producing the first conclusive account of the condition in 1977. Today, in addition to seeing complex patients, Dr. Steere is working to expand the understanding of how Lyme presents across different patient populations, and how it leads to chronic inflammation. Part of his work, he says, is to help distinguish a true Lyme diagnosis from other, similar conditions. “Chronic Lyme disease” can be a catch-all diagnosis—even when there’s little or no evidence that a patient was ever infected with Lyme.
“The chronic Lyme ideology,” Steere says, “has been very seductive for someone who has gone to doctors who can’t explain what’s wrong and then finds one who says, ‘You have Lyme, and I will make you well.’”
In one area of investigation, published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism, MGH researchers reported identifying the first autoantigen known to trigger autoimmune damage in some patients with antibiotic-refractory Lyme arthritis, a complication of the disease. An autoantigen is a human protein attacked by a patient’s own immune system—a phenomenon that can occur alongside intense inflammation.
As researchers continue to uncover insights they hope will lead to better Lyme prevention and treatment, Daniel Kuritzkes, MD, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, offers tips to stave off tick-borne illness while exploring the great outdoors, including:
• Wear long pants and socks when possible
• Use insect repellant
• Check your body for ticks after time outdoors
• If you do find a tick, especially one that’s engorged, see your doctor for treatment
“Many people will recover even without treatment, though we recommend it, notes Dr. Kuritzkes. “It is virtually always curable.”