You've probably heard of Lyme disease. It's often associated with heavily wooded or grassy areas where mice and deer live. Lyme disease is most common in the northeastern United States and the Pacific Northwest, as well as the northern midwestern states.
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. This bacterium is usually found in animals like mice and deer. Ixodes ticks (also called black-legged or deer ticks) that feed on these animals can become infected by the bacterium and then pass it to people when they bite them.
Sound gross? Maybe. But you can be sure that you won't witness this process: It's very hard to see the ticks themselves. Immature ticks, or nymphs, are about the size of a poppy seed. Adult ticks are about the size of a sesame seed.
Because the ticks are hard to find, it helps to be aware of the symptoms of Lyme disease. 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 result in Lyme disease.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Tick bites don't generally hurt — that's part of the difficulty in knowing whether someone has Lyme disease because pain usually helps to call attention to problems. So be on the lookout for ticks and rashes, and call your doctor if you're at all concerned.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: July 2013
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