Join for Just $16 A Year
- Discounts on travel and everyday savings
- Subscription to AARP The Magazine
- Free membership for your spouse or partner
Lyme disease is an infectious disease. It is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato. B. burgdorferi is transmitted to humans via a tick bite from an infected black-legged or deer tick. The tick becomes infected after feeding on infected deer or mice.
A tick has to be present on the skin for 24 to 48 hours to transmit the infection. Most people with Lyme disease have no memory of a tick bite.
Lyme disease was first reported in the town of Old Lyme, Connecticut in 1975. It’s the most common tick-borne illness in the Pacific Northwest, Northeast, and Northern Midwest United States and in Europe. People who live or spend time in wooded areas are more likely to get this illness. So are people with domesticated animals that are let out in wooded areas
Lyme disease occurs in three stages: early localized, early disseminated, and late disseminated. Symptoms depend on which stage the disease is in.
Symptoms of Lyme disease start one to two weeks after the tick bite. One of the earliest signs is a “bull’s eye” rash. This is a sign that bacteria are multiplying in the blood stream. The rash occurs at the site of the tick bite as a central red spot surrounded by a clear spot with an area of redness at the edge. It may be warm to touch, but isn’t painful and doesn’t itch.
This rash will disappear after four weeks. The formal name for this rash is erythema migrans. Erythema migrans is said to be characteristic of Lyme disease. However, many people don’t have this symptom. Some people have a rash that is solid red. On people with dark complexions, the rash may resemble a bruise.
Early disseminated Lyme disease occurs several weeks after the tick bite. Bacteria are beginning to spread throughout the body. This stage is characterized by flu-like symptoms, such as:
There is a general feeling of not being well in stage 2. A rash may appear in areas other than the tick bite. Neurological signs such as numbness, tingling, and Bell’s palsy can also occur. This stage of Lyme disease can be complicated by meningitis and cardiac conduction disturbances. The symptoms of stages 1 and 2 can overlap.
Late disseminated Lyme disease occurs when the infection hasn’t been treated in stage 1 and 2. Stage 3 can occur weeks, months or years after the tick bite. This stage is characterized by:
Contact your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms.
The diagnosis of Lyme disease begins with an assessment of health history and a physical exam. Blood tests are most reliable a few weeks after the initial infection, when antibodies are present.
ELISA(enzyme linked immunosorbent assay) is used to detect antibodies against B. burgdorferi.
Western blot can be used to confirm a positive ELISA. It checks for the presence of antibodies to specific B. burgdorferi proteins.
Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is used to evaluate people with persistent Lyme arthritis or nervous system symptoms. It is performed on joint fluid or spinal fluid.
Lyme disease is best treated in the early stages. Early treatment is a simple 14 to 21 day course of oral antibiotics. This can eliminate all traces of infection. Medications used to treat Lyme disease are:
Persistent Lyme disease is treated with intravenous antibiotics for a period of 14 to 21 days. That eliminates infection. However, improvement of symptoms occurs more slowly.
It’s unknown why symptoms like joint pain continue after the bacteria have been destroyed. Some doctors believe that persistent symptoms occur in people who are prone to autoimmune disease.
Lyme prevention mostly involves decreasing the risk of tick bites. The Mayo Clinic recommends taking the following steps to prevent tick bites:
Oil of lemon eucalyptus gives the same protection as DEET when used in similar concentrations. It shouldn’t be used on children under the age of three.
Written by: Verneda Lights and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Published on Aug 16, 2012
Updated on Feb 15, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.
Member access to health and insurance products and services at AARPhealthcare.com.
Members can get an instant quote with AARP® Dental Insurance administered by Delta Dental Insurance Company.
Members can save on eyewear with AARP® Vision Discounts provided by EyeMed.
Caregiving can be a lonely journey, but AARP offers resources that can help.