What Is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected tick. Typically, a tick must be attached for between 36 and 48 hours to infect a person.
The disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. It can be found across the U.S. and is spread by the blacklegged tick in the eastern U.S. and upper Midwest and the western blacklegged tick on the Pacific Coast. Peak season runs from May to September, although ticks can transmit Lyme disease all year long.
Lyme disease symptoms often mimic those of other illnesses. Some of the most common include:
- Arthritis — Lyme disease bacteria can cause inflammation, pain and swelling in joints. This frequently occurs in the knees.
- Erythema migrans rash — An estimated 70% to 80% of Lyme disease patients experience this rash. It's a circular, red rash that appears at the site of a tick bite within 3 to 30 days and grows larger with time. The rash sometimes becomes clear in the center, making it look like a bull’s eye. Left untreated, Lyme disease can cause erythema migrans rashes to appear elsewhere on the body.
- Facial paralysis — Facial nerves may be affected, leading to one- or two-sided facial drooping.
- Flu-like symptoms — Fever, chills, headache, fatigue, body aches and swollen lymph nodes are common in the early days of infection.
- Shortness of breath, palpitations and chest pain — These signify a rare infection of heart tissue called Lyme carditis.
The "bulls-eye" rash that develops with most cases of Lyme disease is usually enough to make a diagnosis. Not everyone develops the rash, however. Two blood tests, the ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) and the Western blot test can confirm a diagnosis.
Rather than checking for the presence of the Lyme disease bacteria, the tests check whether the body has developed antibodies (special proteins) to fight the bacteria. The tests are most reliable a few weeks after being infected, after the body has developed antibodies. The ELISA test is used first, followed by the Western blot test. Positive results (the presence of antibodies) for both tests confirms Lyme disease.
Getting prompt treatment is critical for a complete and quick Lyme disease recovery. Early-stage treatments include:
- Antibiotics — Oral or intravenous antibiotics are usually the first step in treatment. Early-stage Lyme disease is typically treated with oral antibiotics for 14 to 21 days. If the disease has affected the central nervous system, a 14- to 28-day course of intravenous antibiotics may be needed.
Most people recover following treatment, but a small percentage continue to experience symptoms. Medical experts are unsure why symptoms sometimes persist, and research continues to better understand this phenomenon.
Preventing Lyme Disease
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to prevent being bitten by a tick. There are simple ways to reduce your chance of being bitten:
- Avoid wooded, grassy and brushy areas, especially during warmer spring and summer months
- Stick to the center of trails
- If you’re in areas that may have ticks, wear shoes, long pants tucked into socks, and long sleeves
- Apply insect repellent with 20% or higher of DEET around ankles, other areas of exposed skin (avoiding children's hands, eyes and mouth) and clothing
Checking for Ticks
Ticks can make their way into the home on clothing and pets, and attach to a person later. That's why it's important to check for ticks if you've been in an area that may have them. Showering within 2 hours of being outdoors may help wash off unattached ticks. It's also a good time to do a full body check, including:
- The head
- In and around ears
- Around armpits
- Between legs
- Around the waist
- Behind knees
What to Do If You Find a Tick
If you find a tick, remove it as soon as possible. Use tweezers, grasping as close to the skin as possible, near the tick's head or mouth. Pull carefully and steadily without crushing or twisting the tick and flush it down the toilet. Clean the bite area and your hands with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.
Ready for an Appointment?
If you're experiencing signs or symptoms of Lyme disease, schedule an appointment or call 800-TEMPLE-MED (800-836-7536) today.
Learn more about our infectious disease doctors who diagnose and treat Lyme disease.