Lyme disease is a bacterial disease you can get from ticks. Ticks can be infected with Borrelia burgdorferi (a type of bacteria) and can spread it to you by biting you and attaching to your skin. Black-legged ticks (also called deer ticks) usually spread Lyme disease. Lyme disease got its name from the place where it was first reported in the United States – Old Lyme, Connecticut.
Not everyone who is bitten by a black-legged tick gets Lyme disease. However, a bull's-eye rash called erythema migrans is one of the main symptoms of Lyme disease, showing up in 70% to 80% of infected people. It appears three to 30 days after a tick bite and can look like a bull’s eye, circle, oval or triangle. The rash can expand until it’s about 12 inches across, and it may appear on any part of your body. It’s usually not itchy or painful.
You may also get a small bump or red spot, like a mosquito bite, at the site where the tick bit you. However, that’s not a sign of Lyme disease.
Lyme disease usually moves through three stages that can affect your joints, heart and nervous system.
Stage 1 usually occurs during the first month (four weeks) after you’re infected. At this point, the bacteria haven’t spread throughout your body. Within days or weeks, you may notice early symptoms of Lyme disease such as:
Stage 2 usually happens between months one through four after you’re infected. At this point, the bacteria have started to spread throughout your body. You can have the symptoms from stage 1, plus:
Stage 3 can last from four months after infection to years later. At this point, the bacteria have spread to parts of your body like your nerves and joints. You can have the symptoms of stages 1 and 2, plus:
The best way to not catch Lyme disease is to avoid being bitten by the infected ticks that spread it. Ticks carrying the bacteria live in places like wooded areas, grass, brush and leaf piles. Your pets can also carry them on their fur.
t’s very important to be aware of ticks and careful about looking for them whenever you spend time in areas where you may be exposed.
It’s especially important to take precautions if you spend time outdoors in areas where black-legged ticks are prevalent. In the United States, that includes the entire West Coast, the East Coast from Maine to northeastern Virginia and several North-Central states, especially Wisconsin and Minnesota. Lyme disease may also be found in parts of Europe and southern Canada.
You can be bitten whenever the temperature is above freezing, but ticks are most active in late spring, summer and early fall.
These steps can help you prevent tick bites that cause Lyme disease:
If you’re bitten by a tick, remember that most people who are bitten by ticks do not get Lyme disease. Removing it the right way can help lower the risk that you’ll get Lyme disease. In fact, ticks need to be attached to you for at least 24 hours to infect you.
Here’s what to do to remove a tick from your body:
Don’t try covering a tick with petroleum jelly or nail polish or exposing it to heat to make it release its grip. These methods are designed to make the tick detach, but you don’t want to wait for that to happen. You want to get it off your skin as quickly as possible.
If you think you might have Lyme disease or if you have a rash or fever within several weeks of removing a tick, see your health care provider. If you do have Lyme disease, it’s important to get diagnosed and treated quickly, so you can keep the disease from getting worse.
Tell your doctor if you know you were bitten by a tick. However, most people who have Lyme disease don’t remember being bitten. You may not feel a bite from a young tick (called a nymph). They are only about the size of a pinhead, so they are hard to see.
Diagnosing Lyme disease can be difficult because there are many symptoms, and early test results can sometimes be inaccurate. Therefore, health care providers rely on many factors to make a diagnosis.
Your provider will check your symptoms, review your medical history and request blood tests that can detect antibodies against the Lyme bacteria. It can take several weeks for these antibodies to develop, so your test might not be positive for Lyme disease right away. You need to have two positive blood tests to be diagnosed with Lyme disease.
In areas where Lyme disease is common, most primary care providers and pediatricians (children's doctor) can treat Lyme disease. In other areas, you may want to see an infectious disease specialist.
The good news is that when Lyme disease is diagnosed early and treated with antibiotics, it’s curable. If you have Lyme disease, your doctor will probably prescribe a 10-day to four-week course of antibiotics (such as doxycycline, amoxicillin, cefuroxime or azithromycin) to get rid of the infection. You must take all your medication, even if you feel better. In severe cases of Lyme disease, you may need intravenous (IV) antibiotics.
About 5% to 15% of people with Lyme disease have longer-term symptoms similar to fibromyalgia (unexplained pain throughout the body) or chronic fatigue syndrome, such as joint pain, headaches, fatigue and difficulty thinking. If these symptoms last for more than six months, it’s called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS) or chronic Lyme disease. Scientists aren’t sure what causes it, but it could be an overreaction of your immune system.
These symptoms can improve over time, but it can take many months. There’s no medical treatment and taking more antibiotics doesn’t make a difference. However, it may help to:
Here are some places where you can find additional information about Lyme disease, connect with others and access support:
If you’re concerned about a tick bite, rash, fever or other symptoms that could be signs of Lyme disease, a health care provider can help.