The number of people infected by Lyme disease in the United States has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and it continues to spread to new areas. At least 329,000 people become infected annually.
So what can teachers do? It might not seem like much, but teachers are actually in a good position to spot symptoms, help educate students and parents, and promote prevention.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium transmitted through an infected black-legged-tick bite. It has become a major health problem in the United States, and kids are especially susceptible. Here are some basics about the disease and how you can be supportive in your classroom.
1. Lyme disease is concentrated in certain areas of the country.
About 95 percent of all confirmed Lyme disease cases are reported from 14 states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin). Don’t think it can’t happen in other areas though. Lyme disease is increasing and expanding geographically to the north, west and south, says Dr. Christina Nelson, medical officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colorado.
2. Children are at particular risk.
Because kids like to play outside, they are at a higher risk of contracting Lyme disease. Boys ages 5 to 9 have the highest rate of diagnosed Lyme disease, according to Dr. Nelson.
3. Lyme disease can produce a wide range of symptoms.
Early signs (within 3 to 30 days of a bite) typically include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. Left untreated, later signs may include severe headaches, neck stiffness, facial palsy, dizziness, nerve pain and problems with short-term memory.
4. A rash may be an indicator of a tick bite.
It can appear as a classic expanding bull’s-eye, or it may take other forms. However, many people do not ever see a rash at all. And given that ticks are tiny and often hide in hard-to-see places like the scalp or hairline area, armpit, belly button, or groin area, most people don’t recall the initial tick bite itself.
5. The right diagnosis is important.
“Someone may receive a negative test but still have the Lyme bacteria,” says Holly Wainwright, director of marketing for Global Lyme Alliance and mother of a child with Lyme disease. “It’s just one reason why it’s so important to visit a Lyme-literate doctor who can look at all your symptoms, combined with test results to make a diagnosis.”
6. The prognosis is very good, but sometimes symptoms linger.
Most cases of early-stage Lyme disease can be treated with two to four weeks of antibiotics. Patients usually recover rapidly and completely. In 10 to 20 percent of cases, symptoms can last for more than six months. This chronic condition is known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). Most medical experts believe the lingering symptoms are the result of residual damage to tissues and the immune system that occurred during the infection, according to the CDC.
7. Teachers can help identify Lyme disease in children.
As a teacher, you may be the first to notice a change in academic performance or behavior and possibly a rash. If you suspect Lyme disease, experts suggest going to the school nurse, who can communicate to parents that symptoms consistent with Lyme disease have been spotted. Provide resources that discuss symptoms, such as this one, and how to find a doctor. “But most of all, don’t panic the parent,” adds Wainwright.
8. All students and cases of Lyme disease are different.
“You can look well but be very sick. That’s one of the most challenging aspects of the disease for all children,” says Diane Blanchard, co-founder of the Global Lyme Alliance, who has family experience with Lyme disease. Kids with Lyme disease may experience headaches but not be able to express that their head hurts. Others may have sensitivity to light when going out for recess or have sensitivity to loud noises, like in the lunchroom. “The disease is so illusive, and it cycles,” says Blanchard. “One day a child may be playing basketball, and the next they are too sick to be in school.”
9. Teachers can support students with Lyme disease in a variety of ways.
When children are being treated for Lyme disease, the medicine or supplements may cause them to have an upset stomach in the morning. Young kids who are not feeling well may have separation anxiety or need to come in late because they need more sleep, says Blanchard. In some cases, students are eligible for a 504 designation or IEP because the condition is considered a disability. Accommodations may be appropriate, such as allowing extended time on tests or assigning less homework. “The best thing a teacher can do is to exhibit understanding and patience,” says Wainwright.
10. Teachers can promote prevention.
When outside, encourage students to stay in the center of a clear, open path and not walk through the weeds or in the woods, where ticks are more likely to hitch a ride, suggests Blanchard. Before field trips, consider sending a note home that suggests the use of bug spray the morning of the trip. DEET is a very effective repellent, as is the natural oil of lemon eucalyptus, suggests Nelson. Tell parents to dress kids in light-colored clothing, which makes it easier to spot ticks. Nightly “tick checks” and taking a shower within a few hours of coming in from outdoors are opportunities to remove ticks. Putting clothing directly in the dryer for at least 20 minutes can kill ticks. And wearing clothes pre-treated with permethrin, which kills ticks, can also be suggested. Here are a few more prevention tips.