You've probably heard of Lyme disease. It's most common in the northeastern United States, the Pacific Northwest, and the northern midwestern states.
What Is Lyme Disease?
People get Lyme disease through tick bites. The disease is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi that's usually found in animals like mice and deer.
Ixodes ticks (also called black-legged or deer ticks) are a kind of tick that feeds on mice, deer, and other animals that carry Borrelia burgdorferi. When the tick feeds on infected animals, then bites someone, it can pass the bacterium on to that person.
You probably won't see it happening. Deer ticks are tiny, so it's very hard to see them. Immature ticks (called "nymphs") are about the size of a poppy seed. Adult ticks are about the size of a sesame seed.
It's easy to overlook a tick bite. Many people who get Lyme disease don't remember being bitten. The good news is that most tick bites don't lead to Lyme disease. But it still helps to know the signs of Lyme disease.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms?
Lyme disease can affect different body systems, such as the nervous system, joints, skin, and heart. The symptoms of Lyme disease are often described as happening in three stages. Not everyone experiences all of these stages, though:
- A circular rash at the site of the tick bite, typically within 1-2 weeks of infection, often is the first sign of infection. Although it's considered typical of Lyme disease, many people never develop one.
The rash sometimes has a characteristic "bull's-eye" appearance, with a central red spot surrounded by clear skin that is ringed by an expanding red rash. It also can appear as an expanding ring of solid redness. It's usually flat and painless, but sometimes can be warm to the touch, itchy, scaly, burning, or prickling. The rash may appear and feel very different from one person to the next, and it might be more difficult to see on people with darker skin tones, where it can look like a bruise. It expands over the course of days to weeks, and eventually disappears on its own. Along with the rash, a person may have flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, headache, and muscle aches.
- Left untreated, symptoms of the initial illness may go away on their own. But in some people, the infection can spread to other parts of the body. Symptoms of this stage of Lyme disease usually appear within several weeks after the tick bite, even in someone who has not developed the initial rash. The person may feel very tired and unwell, or may have more areas of rash that aren't at the site of the bite.
Lyme disease can affect the heart. This can lead to an irregular heart rhythm, which can result in dizziness or heart palpitations. It can also spread to the nervous system, causing facial paralysis (Bell's palsy), or meningitis.
- The last stage of Lyme disease can occur if the early stages of the disease were not detected or appropriately treated. Symptoms of late Lyme disease can appear any time from weeks to years (average of 6 months) after an infectious tick bite, and in children and teens is almost always in the form of arthritis, with swelling and tenderness particularly in the knees or other large joints.
Having such a wide range of symptoms can make Lyme disease difficult for doctors to diagnose. Fortunately, there's a blood test that looks for evidence of the body's reaction to Lyme disease.
When Should I Call My Doctor?
If you think you may be at risk for Lyme disease or a tick has bitten you, contact your doctor. Although conditions other than Lyme disease can cause similar symptoms, it's always a good idea to discuss them with your doctor. That way you can get further evaluation and treatment if necessary, before the disease progresses. This is especially true if you develop a red-ringed rash, prolonged flu-like symptoms, joint pain or a swollen joint, or facial paralysis.
Can I Prevent Lyme Disease?
There's no surefire way to avoid getting Lyme disease. But you can minimize your risk. Be aware of ticks when you are in high-risk areas. If you work outdoors or spend time gardening, fishing, hunting, or camping, take precautions:
- Wear enclosed shoes or boots, long-sleeved shirts, and long pants. Tuck your pant legs into your shoes or boots to prevent ticks from crawling up your legs.
- Use an insect repellant containing 10% to 30% DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide).
- Wear light-colored clothing to help you see ticks more easily.
- Keep long hair pulled back or wear a cap for protection.
- Don't sit on the ground outside.
- Check yourself for ticks regularly — both indoors and outdoors. Wash your clothes and hair after leaving tick-infested areas.
If you use an insect repellent containing DEET, always follow the recommendations on the product's label and don't overapply it. Place DEET on shirt collars and sleeves and pant cuffs, and only use it directly on exposed areas of skin. Be sure to wash it off when you go back indoors.
No vaccine for Lyme disease is currently on the market in the United States.
How Is Lyme Disease Treated?
Lyme disease is usually treated with a 2- to 4-week course of antibiotics. Cases of Lyme disease that are diagnosed quickly and treated with antibiotics almost always have a good outcome. A person should be feeling back to normal within several weeks after beginning treatment.
Is It Contagious?
Lyme disease is not contagious, so you can't catch it from another person. But you can get it more than once from ticks that live on deer, in the woods, or travel on your pets. So continue to practice caution even if you've already had Lyme disease.
What Can I Do to Feel Better?
You should know how to remove a tick just in case one lands on you or a friend. First, don't panic. Your risk of developing Lyme disease after being bitten by a tick is only about 1% to 3%. On top of that, it takes at least 24 to 48 hours for the tick to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. (To be safe, though, you'll want to remove the tick as soon as possible.) This is why a daily tick check is a good idea for people who live in high-risk areas.
If you find a tick:
- Call your doctor. He or she may want you to save the tick after removal so that the tick can later be identified as the type that may carry Lyme disease. You can put the tick in a closed container or a jar of alcohol to preserve it.
- Use tweezers to grasp the tick firmly at its head or mouth, next to your skin.
- Pull firmly and steadily on the tick until it lets go of the skin. If part of the tick stays in your skin, don't worry. It will eventually come out — although you should call your doctor if you notice any irritation in the area or symptoms of Lyme disease.
- Swab the bite site with alcohol.
One note of caution: Don't use "folk remedies" like petroleum jelly or a lit match to kill and remove a tick.
Tick bites don't usually hurt. That's part of the difficulty in knowing whether someone has Lyme disease. So be on the lookout for ticks and rashes, and call your doctor if you think a tick bit you.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: July 2013
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