Guide to Lyme Disease

Part 1 of 4 - What Are the Symptoms of Lyme Disease?

Tick on Fingertip
Lyme Disease Guide. Karen Kasmauski / Getty Images

How Did Lyme Disease Become Known?

Lyme disease was first recognized in 1975 after researchers investigated why unusually large numbers of children were being diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in Lyme, Connecticut, and two neighboring towns.

  • The researchers discovered that most of the affected children lived and played near wooded areas where ticks live.
  • They also found that the children’s first symptoms typically started in the summer months, the height of the tick season.
  • Several of the patients interviewed reported having a skin rash just before developing their arthritis.
  • Many also recalled being bitten by a tick at the rash site.

Further investigations discovered that tiny deer ticks infected with a spiral-shaped bacterium or spirochete (which was later named Borrelia burgdorferi) were responsible for the outbreak of arthritis in Lyme.

In Europe, a skin rash similar to that of Lyme disease had been described in medical literature dating back to the turn of the 20th century.

Lyme disease may have spread from Europe to the U.S. in the early 1900s, but health experts only recently recognized it as a distinct illness.

Ticks Transmit Lyme

Ticks that most often transmit Lyme disease in the U.S. (these ticks look very similar)

    Role of Deer & Rodents

    Small rodents and deer play an important role in a deer tick’s life cycle.

    • deer ticks lay eggs that turn into larvae that feed on mice and other small mammals
    • larvae then develop into immature ticks called nymphs
    • nymphs then feed on small mammals and humans
    • adult deer ticks usually feed on deer during the adult part of their life cycles

      Both nymphs and adult ticks can transmit Lyme disease-causing bacteria.


      The recent increase of the deer population in the Northeast and of housing developments in areas where deer ticks are commonly found probably contributed to its increased spread.

      The number of reported cases of Lyme disease as well as the number of geographic areas in which it is found have increased. Lyme disease has been reported in nearly all states in the United States, although more than 95% of all reported cases are concentrated in:

      • Northeast / Mid-Atlantic states
      • Wisconsin
      • Minnesota
      • N. California

      Lyme disease is also found in large areas of Asia and Europe.

      Symptoms of Lyme Disease

      Erythema Migrans

      Usually, the first symptom of Lyme disease is a red rash known as erythema migrans (EM).

      • The telltale rash starts as a small red spot at the site of the tick bite.
      • The spot expands over a period of days or weeks, forming a circular or oval-shaped rash.
      • Sometimes the rash resembles a bull’s eye, appearing as a red ring surrounding a clear area with a red center.
      • The rash, which can range in size from that of a dime to the width of your back, appears within a few weeks of a tick bite and usually at the site of the bite.

      As infection spreads, rashes can appear at different sites on the body. Erythema migrans is often accompanied by flu-like symptoms such as:

      • fever
      • headache
      • stiff neck
      • body aches
      • fatigue

      Although these symptoms may resemble those of common viral infections, Lyme disease symptoms tend to persist or may come and go.


      After several months of B. burgdorferi infection, slightly more than half of people not treated with antibiotics develop recurrent attacks of painful and swollen joints that last a few days to a few months.

      • The arthritis can shift from one joint to another.
      • The knee is most commonly affected.
      • About 10 to 20% of untreated people will go on to develop chronic arthritis.

      Neurologic Symptoms

      Lyme disease also can affect your nervous system, causing symptoms such as:

      • stiff neck and severe headache (meningitis)
      • temporary paralysis of facial muscles (Bell’s palsy)
      • numbness, pain, or weakness in the limbs
      • poor muscle movement

      More subtle changes also have been associated with Lyme disease such as:

      • memory loss
      • difficulty concentrating
      • change in mood or sleep habits

      Nervous system problems usually develop weeks, months, or even years following an untreated infection. These symptoms often last for weeks or months and may return.

      Heart Problems

      Fewer than 10% of people with Lyme disease develop heart problems, such as irregular heartbeat, which can start with dizziness or shortness of breath. These symptoms rarely last more than a few days or weeks. Such heart problems generally show up several weeks after infection.

      Other Symptoms

      Less commonly, untreated people may develop other problems weeks, months, or even years after infection. Lyme disease can also result in:

      • eye inflammation
      • hepatitis (liver disease)
      • severe fatigue

      None of these problems is likely to appear without other Lyme disease symptoms being present.

      Diagnosis of Lyme Disease

      Your doctor or health care provider may have difficulty diagnosing Lyme disease because many of its symptoms are similar to those of other disorders.

      Other Factors

      • The only distinctive sign unique to Lyme disease (the Erythema migrans rash) is absent in at least one-fourth of the people who become infected.
      • The results of recent research studies show that an infected tick must be attached to the skin for at least 2 days to transmit Lyme bacteria.

        Although a tick bite is an important clue for diagnosis, many people cannot recall having been bitten recently by a tick. This is not surprising because the deer tick is tiny, and a tick bite is usually painless.

        If you have possible Lyme disease symptoms, but do not develop the distinctive rash, your health care provider will rely on a detailed medical history and a careful physical examination for clues to diagnose it, with laboratory tests to support the diagnosis.

        Blood Tests

        The Lyme disease bacterium is difficult to find in laboratory tests of body tissues or fluids. Therefore, most health care providers look for evidence of antibodies against B. burgdorferi in the blood to confirm the bacterium’s role as the cause of symptoms.

        Some people with nervous system symptoms also may get a spinal tap. Using this procedure, your health care provider can detect brain and spinal cord inflammation and can look for antibodies or genetic material of B.

        burgdorferi in the spinal fluid.

        Health care providers cannot always firmly establish whether Lyme disease bacteria are causing symptoms.

        • In the first few weeks following infection, antibody tests are not reliable because your immune system has not produced enough antibodies to be detected.
        • Antibiotics given early during infection also may prevent antibodies from reaching detectable levels, even though Lyme disease bacteria are causing your symptoms.

          What Is ELISA?

          The antibody test most often used is called an ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test. The Food and Drug Administration has approved two antibody tests:

          • the Prevue B, a rapid test, can give results within an hour
          • the C6 Lyme Peptide ELISA is very sensitive and specific

          If your ELISA is positive, your health care provider should confirm it with a second, more specific test called a Western blot.

          Clinical Judgment

          Health care providers must rely on their clinical judgment in diagnosing Lyme disease if you don’t have the distinctive EM rash. Such a diagnosis would be based on

          • time of year
          • history of a tick bite
          • symptoms

          In addition, your health care provider will rule out other diseases that might cause your symptoms.

          Symptoms of Lyme disease can mimic many other diseases and conditions such as:

          Conversely, other types of arthritis or other autoimmune diseases can be misdiagnosed as Lyme disease.

          Health care providers may consider also factors such as

          • whether your symptoms first appeared during the summer months when tick bites are most likely to occur
          • whether you were outdoors in an area where Lyme disease is more common

          New Tests Under Development

          Health care providers need tests to distinguish between people who have recovered from previous infection and those who continue to suffer from active infection. To improve the accuracy of Lyme disease diagnosis, National Institutes of Health (NIH) supported researchers are re-evaluating existing tests and developing a number of new tests that promise to be more reliable than those currently available.

          NIH scientists are developing tests that use the highly sensitive genetic engineering technique known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) as well as microarray technology to detect extremely small quantities of the genetic material of the Lyme disease bacterium or its products in body tissues and fluids. A bacterial protein, outer surface protein (Osp) C, is proving useful for early detection of specific antibodies in people with Lyme disease. Since the genome of B. burgdorferi has been sequenced, new avenues are available for improving understanding of the disease and its diagnosis.

          Treatment of Lyme disease

          Using antibiotics appropriately, your health care provider can effectively treat your Lyme disease. In general, the sooner you begin treatment following infection, the quicker and more complete your recovery.

          • Antibiotics such as Doxycycline, cefuroxime axetil, or amoxicillin, taken orally for a few weeks, can speed the healing of the EM rash and usually prevent subsequent symptoms such as arthritis or neurologic problems.
          • Doxycycline also will effectively treat most other tickborne diseases.

          Because doxycycline can stain the permanent teeth developing in young children or unborn babies, if Lyme disease occurs in children younger than 9 years, or in pregnant or breastfeeding women, they usually are treated with:

          • amoxicillin
          • cefuroxime axetil
          • penicillin

          Lyme Arthritis

          If you have Lyme arthritis, your health care provider may treat you with oral antibiotics. If your arthritis is severe, you may be given ceftriaxone or penicillin intravenously (through a vein). To ease discomfort and to further healing, your health care provider might also:

          • prescribe medications such as NSAIDs (non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drugs)
          • perform a joint aspiration (drawing fluid from your affected joints)
          • surgically remove the inflamed lining of the affected joints

          In most people, Lyme arthritis will go away within a few weeks or months following antibiotic treatment.

          In some, however, it can take years to disappear completely. Some people with Lyme disease who are untreated for several years may be cured of their arthritis with the proper antibiotic treatment. If the disease has persisted long enough, however, it may permanently damage the structure of the joints.

          Neurologic Problems

          If you have neurologic symptoms, your health care provider will probably treat you with the antibiotic ceftriaxone given intravenously once a day for a month or less. Most people recover completely.

          Heart Problems

          Health care providers prefer to treat people with Lyme disease who have heart symptoms with antibiotics such as ceftriaxone or penicillin given intravenously for about 2 weeks. People with Lyme disease rarely have long-term heart damage.

          Lyme Disease Research

          Following treatment for Lyme disease, you might still have muscle achiness, neurologic symptoms such as problems with memory and concentration, and fatigue.

          • NIH-sponsored researchers are conducting studies to determine the cause of these symptoms and how to best treat them.

          Studies suggest that people who suffer from chronic Lyme disease may be genetically predisposed to develop an autoimmune response that contributes to their symptoms.

          • Researchers are now examining the significance of this finding in great detail.

            Researchers are also conducting studies to find out the best length of time to give antibiotics for the various signs and symptoms of Lyme disease.

            Lyme Disease Can Reoccur

            Unfortunately, a bout with Lyme disease is no guarantee that the illness will not return. The disease can strike more than once if you are reinfected with Lyme disease bacteria.

            Further Research

            NIH conducts and supports biomedical research aimed at meeting the challenges of Lyme disease. Scientists are gaining a better understanding of the human immune response that leads to Lyme disease.

            • For example, they are uncovering the mechanisms responsible for treatment-resistant Lyme arthritis. Improved understanding of the human immune response may lead to better diagnostic and prognostic tools.
            • For example, the B. burgdorferi immune complex assay, a test under development, indicates active Lyme disease infection earlier than antibody tests now in use. Because Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose and sometimes does not respond to treatment, researchers are trying to create a vaccine that will protect people from getting infected. Vaccines work in part by prompting the body to make antibodies. These custom-shaped molecules lock onto specific proteins made by a virus or bacterium. Often, those proteins lodge in the microbe’s outer coat. Once antibodies attach to an invading microbe, other immune defenses are called upon to destroy it.

            The Key to Progress

            Although Lyme disease poses many challenges, they are challenges the medical research community is well equipped to meet. New information on Lyme disease is accumulating at a rapid pace, thanks to the scientific research being conducted around the world.

            Lyme Disease Prevention Techniques

            Reducing exposure to ticks is the best defense against Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections. There are several approaches you and your family can use to prevent and control Lyme disease.

            At present, the best way to avoid Lyme disease is to avoid deer ticks. Although generally only about 1 percent of all deer ticks are infected with Lyme disease bacteria, in some areas more than half of them harbor the germs.

            More people with Lyme disease become infected during the summer, when immature ticks are most prevalent. In warm climates, deer ticks thrive and bite during the winter months as well.

            Deer ticks are most often found in wooded areas and nearby shady grasslands and are especially common where the two areas merge. Because the adult ticks feed on deer, areas where deer are seen frequently are likely to harbor large numbers of deer ticks.

            If you are pregnant, you should be especially careful to avoid ticks in Lyme disease areas because infection can be transferred to your unborn child. Although rare, such a prenatal infection may make you more likely to miscarry or deliver a stillborn baby.

            Tips to Avoid Ticks

            • To help prevent contact with ticks, walk in the center of trails to avoid picking up ticks from overhanging grass and brush.
            • To minimize skin exposure to ticks, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts that fit tightly at the ankles and wrists.
            • To further protect, wear a hat, tuck pant legs into socks, and wear shoes that leave no part of your feet exposed.
            • To make it easy to find ticks on clothes, wear light-colored clothing.
            • To keep ticks away, spray clothing with the insecticide permethrin, commonly found in lawn and garden stores.
            • To repel ticks, spray clothing or the skin with insect repellents that contain a chemical called DEET (N, N-diethyl-M-toluamide).

              Although highly effective, repellents can cause some serious side effects, particularly when you use high concentrations repeatedly on your skin. Infants and children especially may suffer from bad reactions to DEET. If you repeatedly apply insect repellents with concentrations of DEET higher than 15 percent, you should wash your skin with soap and water, and wash any clothing as well.

              Checking for Ticks

              The immature deer ticks most likely to cause Lyme disease are only about the size of a poppy seed, so they are easily mistaken for a freckle or a speck of dirt. Once indoors:

              • Check for ticks, particularly in the hairy regions of your body
              • Wash all clothing
              • Check pets for ticks before letting them in the house Pets can carry ticks into the house. These ticks could fall off without biting the animal and then attach to and bite people. In addition, pets can develop symptoms of Lyme disease.

              If a tick is attached to your skin:

              • Pull it out gently with tweezers, taking care not to squeeze the tick’s body
              • Apply an antiseptic to the bite

              Please See: How to Remove a Tick

              Studies by NIH-supported researchers suggest that a tick must be attached for at least 48 hours to transmit Lyme disease bacteria. Promptly removing the tick could keep you from getting infected.

              The risk of developing Lyme disease from a tick bite is small, even in heavily infested areas. Most health care providers prefer not to use antibiotics to treat people bitten by ticks unless they develop symptoms of Lyme disease.

              Getting Rid of Ticks

              Deer provide a safe haven for ticks that transmit B. burgdorferi and other disease-causing microbes. You can reduce the number of ticks, which can spread diseases in your area, by clearing trees and removing yard litter and excess brush that attract deer and rodents.

              In the meantime, researchers are trying to develop an effective strategy for ridding areas of deer ticks. Studies show that spraying pesticide in wooded areas in the spring and fall can substantially reduce for more than a year the number of adult deer ticks living there. Spraying on a large scale, however, may not be economically feasible and may prompt environmental or health concerns. Researchers also are testing pesticide-treated deer and rodent feeders, which may offer an environmentally safer alternative. One product, the Maxforce Tick Management System, tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reduces the number of ticks in the landscape by 80 percent the first year and 97 percent by year two. Successful control of deer ticks will probably depend on a combination of tactics. Before wide-scale tick control strategies can be put into practice, there need to be more definitive studies.

              Source: NIH Publication No. 05-7045

              Continue Reading