If you or your child love to play outdoors in the spring and summer (which if you do keep it up!) you’re probably very aware that you need to reapply sunscreen every few hours, drink plenty of water, wear light clothes, pack some sunglasses and so forth. Most sports parents and coaches do a great job of keeping an eye on their youth athletes for signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion but there is another summertime danger that parents and coaches have to be on the lookout for, especially for the runners and bikers that prefer wooded trails—Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted by deer ticks. Lyme disease has only been recognized since 1975 after researchers investigated why unusually large numbers of children were being diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in Lyme, Conn. The children’s symptoms typically started in the summer, which coincided with the height of the tick season.
In the early stages of Lyme disease, many experience flu-like symptoms including a stiff neck, chills, fever, headaches, fatigue, and muscle or joint pain. Since some ticks are so small they are practically impossible to notice and some people don’t even realize they’ve been bitten! But the tell-tale sign of Lyme disease is a large rash around the area of the tick bite that tends to look like a bulls eye. The rash (which appears 70% to 80% of the time) typically appears between three days and a few weeks after a tick bite. Because the initial symptoms mimic the flu and the rash might not appear right away, it’s not that unusual that the parents of a youth athlete who was bit by a tick assume it really is just the flu. Since those flu-like symptoms go away after a few days like you’d expect the flu to do most parents think nothing more of it until the rash appears.
But here’s where it gets a little unnerving—after several weeks of being infected with Lyme disease, approximately 60% of those not treated with antibiotics develop recurrent attacks of painful and swollen joints that can last for a few days to a few months. Can you imagine being an eight year old soccer player with bad knees and not know why? That’s a pretty scary thought for both the youth athlete and the parents.
Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose because many of its symptoms could be easily attributed to another disease. Most of the time people don’t even realize they were bit by a tick until the rash appears. Lyme disease has been reported in nearly every state, although most cases are concentrated in the coastal northeast, Mid-Atlantic States, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and northern California. Chances are you won’t get bit by tick walking through your yard but if you or your kids like to run through the woods or tall grass it’s definitely something to keep an eye out for. Lyme disease, when caught early, can be treated in just a few weeks with antibiotics.
Because the symptoms can vary from person to person, it’s entirely possible that Lyme disease can go undiagnosed. For instance, Pro freeskier Angeli VanLaanen went undiagnosed for 14 years! She spent 2 ½ years on antibiotics and “went from being a world-class athlete to “taking a walk around the block” to be active.” US Track runner Perry Fields struggled with Lyme disease for four and half years after she was diagnosed, which happened 2 years after she was initially bit.
If you suspect your youth athlete might have Lyme disease make an appointment to see your doctor right away! Don’t let them lose years of their athletic career (even if they don’t go pro) because of Lyme disease.