Lyme prevention and treatment: What works and what doesn't?


PITTSFIELD -- As is the case with most diseases, the earlier Lyme disease can be diagnosed, doctors say, the easier it will be to treat.

Lyme disease is a deer-tick-borne illness first recognized in 1975 in Lyme, Conn. and two neighboring communities.

Symptoms include aching joints, fatigue, flu-like feelings and even neurological, cardiac and nervous disorders.

The Northeast, including Berkshire County, is the epicenter of the disease, which has spread to most regions of the country as well as Asia and Europe.

According to Dr. Paula Aucoin, an infectious disease specialist with a practice in Pittsfield, treatment of Lyme disease usually entails a short course of antibiotics, such as doxycycline, taken orally for about four weeks.

That option is usually sufficient to cure Lyme, said Aucoin, who has been treating the disease for about 30 years.

In certain cases, specifically individuals who have been exposed to the disease for an extended period of time without being treated and who may have more serious symptoms, intravenous antibiotics may be used, she said.

Dr. Harry Sandhu, a local rheumatologist, explained that about 80 percent of the patients he sees respond to oral antibiotic treatment.

"It is very curable in this early stage," he said.

Both Aucoin and Sandhu emphasized preventative measures such as wearing protective clothing when in the woods and checking bare arms and legs for the tick that carries the disease.

Aucoin said that often if a tick is discovered and removed within 24 hours, "the risk of infection is almost nil."

But the treatment of Lyme is, for some, not so cut and dried. Because there is no surefire diagnostic test for Lyme, it is a difficult disease to diagnose. Its symptoms are similar to those of other immune-hostile infections.

Although many doctors and infectious disease specialists believe that antibiotic therapy is the best curative plan, there are literally thousands of patients -- and a considerable number of doctors -- who believe the problem is more complicated.

Kenneth Mercure, the founder of the Lyme Alliance of the Berkshires, said he has suffered from chronic Lyme disease for nearly two decades. Chronic Lyme is not recognized by the U.S. medical community as a viable disease. Rather, say many doctors, what is interpreted as chronic Lyme is actually any one of a number of post-Lyme infections.

But Mercure is one of many Lyme sufferers who believe the disease is more prevalent -- and more virulent -- than many doctors and even medical organizations such as the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention and the Infectious Disease Society of America have indicated.

Aucoin, Sandhu and Mercure all agree on one thing: The severity of the disease depends greatly on the individual.

But Mercure said that doctors and medical organizations in the United States have taken a conservative posture in treating the disease, and that he and many other Lyme patients have been adversely affected.

"It's a cookie-cutter approach to treating [Lyme]," he said. "And Lyme disease, specifically chronic Lyme, doesn't fit into it."

Mercure has tried many therapies for his illness, with varying degrees of success, he said.

"I've noticed some improvement, but I'm still sick," he said.

Mercure's Lyme support group meets once a month at the Berkshire Athenaeum. The group welcomes Lyme sufferers and family members. Sometimes, said Mercure, there is a speaker, but the group also answers questions about the disease and its treatment.

This month's meeting is on June 22 at noon. Next month's meeting is July 20.

Protecting yourself from ticks

• Know where ticks live. They favor moist and humid environments in the woods or in grassy areas. The CDC recommends to always walk in the center of hiking trails to avoid contact.

 Products with permethrin kill ticks; you can treat boots, clothing and camping gear with them.

 Use bugspray! Repellants with 20 percent or more DEET will protect you for several hours.

 When you come indoors, change clothes and bathe or shower as soon as possible. You'll prevent ticks from crawling around on you, and you'll find them more easily.

 Do a full-body tick check as soon as you come inside. Check your children and friends, too. If you're alone, use a mirror. Remember to check under your arms, in and around your ears, inside your belly button, behind your knees, between your lefs, around your waist and in your hair.

 Don't forget to check your hiking gear, too.

 To make sure you're not missing anything, tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill any remaining ticks.

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Symptoms of tickborne illness

The most common symptoms are:


 Aches and pains -- headache, muscle aches, fatigue; joint pain is also fairly common

 Rash: It doesn't always occur, but when it does, it's an expanding circle around the bite mark. It may be warm but not painful, and some patients develop similar rashes on other areas of the body days later. Look for a bullseye pattern.

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

To reach Derek Gentile:,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile


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