The Center for Disease Control names Lyme disease as America's fastest-growing infectious disease -- and what's worse is that its figures are the tip of a very scary iceberg.


"For every one case that's reported, there are 10 that aren't," says New York-based Dr. Claudia Cooke, MD, FACP, MPH, a medical adviser for the Tick-Borne Disease Alliance. "It's a disease that's vastly underreported."


That's because Lyme is a devious illness with symptoms that range from negligible to catastrophically debilitating. Those infected can feel like they have a mild flu or be incapacitated with extreme exhaustion and pain. "Most people are in the middle spectrum for symptoms," she says.


Treatment is generally by antibiotic therapy. If left untreated, or not treated successfully, the virus can exist in the body, eventually causing or exacerbating neurological or autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.


Don't rely on the trademark rash as an indicator of infection either. "Not everyone gets the bulls-eye rash from a tick bite," Dr. Cooke says. "Anyone who experiences unusual fatigue, muscle or joint aches or cognitive changes should see a Lyme-literate doctor. If you find a tick, or suspect you've been bitten, get screened as soon as you can."


Protect yourself

With a warm winter fueling tick populations in the Northeast, no nature lover can be too cautious. Here are the TBDA's tick bite prevention tips:

Don't walk in meadows or wooded areas with exposed skin. Choose light-colored clothing to make it easier to spot ticks. Tuck your shirt into your pants and your pant legs into your socks. It looks dorky but keeps you safe.

Purchase tick-repellent clothing or spray your own clothing with repellent. If you don't like synthetic insecticides, there are natural alternatives using essential oils or neem oil.

Shower and wash clothing as soon as you can. Check for ticks while you are out. Do another check in the shower. Drying clothing at high heat for about 30 minutes kills the little bugs.

Don't forget about Fido. Brush down pets immediately after walking. At home, use a flea comb to inspect further.