Lyme Disease

Lyme Disease Overview

Reviewed: May 14, 2014

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection passed to humans through the bite of infected deer ticks (also known as the blacklegged tick). Symptoms may include fever, headache, fatigue, an a characteristic rash that may resemble a bullseye.

The infection was first reported in the U.S. in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1977. In the U.S., most Lyme disease infections occur in the Northeastern, North-central and West Coast states. The following states report the majority of infections: Wisconsin, Minnesota, northern California, and states ranging from Virginia to Maine. Lyme disease is the most common tickborne infection in both North America and Europe. 

Lyme disease can be tricky to diagnose as tick bites can go unnoticed and many of the symptoms associated with Lyme disease are similar to those of the flu and other diseases.

Lyme disease can usually be effectively treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, the infection may spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.

Lyme Disease Symptoms

The first symptom is usually a rash called erythema migrans, which typically appears 3 to 30 days after the tick bite. It may start as a small red spot and get larger, forming a circular bull's eye. 

As the infection spreads, rashes can appear in other parts of the body and may be accompanied by other symptoms including:

  • A fever
  • A headache
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • A stiff neck
  • Fatigue

Lyme Disease Causes

Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi (B. burgdorferi), a type of bacteria. Deer ticks, also called blacklegged ticks, carry the bacteria after biting mice or deer that are infected with B. burgdorferi.

Lyme Disease Diagnosis

Diagnosis of early Lyme disease is usually made on the basis of symptoms, which may or may not include the bullseye (erythema migrans) rash, and evidence of a tick bite. 

If early Lyme disease is untreated, the CDC recommends using the ELISA and Western-blot blood tests be performed. These tests are considered more reliable and accurate when performed at least a month after initial infection, therefore they are not usually performed in the early stages of the disease.

Lyme Disease Treatments

If treated with appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease, patients usually recover quickly and completely.

Antibiotics commonly used for oral treatment include:

  • doxycycline
  • amoxicillin
  • cefuroxime axetil

Patients with certain neurological or cardiac forms of illness may require intravenous treatment with drugs such as ceftriaxone or penicillin.

Lyme Disease Prognosis

Antibiotics cure most cases of Lyme disease. However, patients may recover more quickly and more completely the sooner treatment is initiated. Without treatment, complications involving the joints, heart, and nervous system can occur. However, these symptoms and stages are still treatable and curable.

Some people have lingering symptoms after treatment with antibiotics for Lyme disease. This is known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. Symptoms including muscle and joint pains, sleep disturbance, cognitive defects, or fatigue may last months to years after treatment.

Prevention Tips: 

  • Wear light colored pants and long-sleeved shirts. The light color makes it easier to spot ticks.
  • Stay in the middle of hiking trails to avoid brush and grassy areas.
  • After spending time outdoors, check yourself and your pets for ticks.
  • If you find a tick, remove it carefully using tweezers and save the tick for identification.