Patricia Chaney

Destigmatizing Invisible Illness, Part 4: Lyme Disease

Lyme disease: If you don’t have it (or know someone who does), you may not know much about it beyond the fact that it’s contracted from ticks. But managing Lyme disease and its long-term symptoms can interfere with people’s day-to-day lives.

Lyme disease affects roughly 300,000 people a year, a drastic increase from even a decade ago. To foster a more supportive workplace environment for employees with Lyme disease, you — and your workforce — should understand the condition. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Lyme Disease?

This bacterial infection is transmitted through the bite of an infected black-legged tick, also known as a deer tick. These insects are found in the Northeast and upper Mid-Atlantic area, Northern Central states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the West Coast. The infection initially causes flu-like symptoms and a rash with a bull’s-eye appearance. The illness can also lead to facial paralysis, heart palpitations, nerve pain and short-term memory issues.

Typically, these symptoms disappear after a short course of antibiotics. However, other symptoms can linger for months or even years following the active infection in a condition called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that anywhere from 5% to 30% of people who have been infected with Lyme disease go on to develop PTLDS.

Pain, fatigue, confusion and arthritis are common symptoms of PTLDS. Though these are real symptoms, they’re also nonspecific and can come across as laziness or disengagement in someone who was just recently healthy. With no blood test or other definitive method of diagnosis, PTLDS is a truly invisible illness. Even the medical community’s understanding of why some people experience lingering effects is limited. Someone with PTLDS may have a hard time helping a supervisor or coworkers understand that their symptoms are real if they can’t obtain a diagnosis to begin with.

Overcoming the stigma starts with education. All employees, whether they have Lyme disease themselves or not, should know how to prevent it and where to seek help.

Preventing Lyme Disease

If you live in a region where employees may be exposed to infected deer ticks, it’s important to educate them, especially while the weather is still warm. Although summer has some of the highest reported rates of Lyme disease infections, ticks are a year-round concern. As your employees are still outside hiking, camping and doing yard work well into the fall, they need to take precautions to prevent bites. Encourage employees who plan to spend time outdoors to:

  • Use insect repellent in heavily wooded areas.
  • Wear clothing treated with 0.5% permethrin.
  • Check for ticks after going outside.
  • Shower within two hours of coming inside.

A tick needs to be attached for 36 to 48 hours to transmit the bacteria, so tell employees that simply having a tick on their skin isn’t cause for immediate alarm, though the tick should be removed as soon as possible.

How You Can Help Employees With Lyme Disease

PTLDS symptoms aren’t obvious at a glance, but they can still hinder someone’s productivity at work. If you have an employee with Lyme disease, chances are they’ll feel ill for a few days to a week before recovering. Encourage them to seek medical help at the first sign of symptoms. It’s also possible that the effects will be ongoing; managing Lyme disease involves addressing symptoms as they appear. Make sure employees understand their benefits, and allow them time off for doctor visits to establish a treatment plan.

The goal of treatment is to keep symptoms from disrupting a person’s daily life. But when the symptoms include fatigue and pain, that can be hard to do. Be patient with employees who need accommodations for medical appointments or flexible work hours, and remember that PTLDS symptoms do often resolve on their own with time. When addressing chronic illness at work, especially when the condition isn’t obvious from the outside, just showing your support goes a long way toward creating a welcoming, supportive workplace environment.

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