Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness in North America and Europe. Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Deer ticks, which feed on the blood of animals and humans, can harbor the bacteria and spread it when feeding.
You're more likely to get Lyme disease if you live or spend time in grassy and heavily wooded areas where ticks carrying the disease thrive. It's important to take common-sense precautions in areas where Lyme disease is prevalent.
If you're treated with appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of the disease, you're likely to recover completely. In later stages, response to treatment may be slower, but the majority of people with Lyme disease recover completely with appropriate treatment.
The signs and symptoms of Lyme disease are variable, usually involving more than one system. The skin, joints and nervous system are affected most often. In general, Lyme disease can cause:
When to see a doctor
Lyme disease rash
People with Lyme disease may experience a characteristic bull's-eye rash. The rash gradually spreads over a period of days and may eventually reach up to 12 inches (30 centimeters) across. ...
In the United States, the Lyme disease bacterium is carried primarily by deer ticks. The ticks are brown and often no bigger than the head of the pin, which can make them nearly impossible to spot.
Ticks attach themselves to a host and feed on the host's blood until they're swollen to many times their normal size. During feeding, ticks that carry disease-producing bacteria can transmit the bacteria to a healthy host. Or, if the host is infected, they may pick up bacteria themselves.
Deer ticks typically feed on the blood of mice, small birds and deer, but they can also feed on the blood of humans, cats, dogs and horses. They live in low bushes and tall grasses of wooded areas, waiting for warm-blooded animals to pass by. Deer ticks are most active in the summer.
To contract Lyme disease, you must be bitten by an infected deer tick. The bacteria enter your skin through the bite and eventually make their way into your bloodstream. Before bacteria can be transmitted, a deer tick must take a blood meal, which can take more than 48 hours of feeding. Only ticks that are attached to your skin and are feeding can transmit the bacteria. An attached tick that has a swollen appearance may indicate that enough time has elapsed to transmit bacteria. Removing the tick as soon as possible may prevent infection.
Photo of the deer tick in all life stages
The deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) goes through three life stages. Shown from left to right is the adult female, adult male, nymph and larva on a centimeter scale. ...
Where you live or vacation can affect your chances of getting Lyme disease. So can your profession and the type of outdoor activities you enjoy. The most common risk factors for Lyme disease include:
Left untreated, Lyme disease can cause:
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. However, in some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred immediately to a rheumatologist, infectious disease specialist or other specialist.
Here's some information to help you prepare for you appointment.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions for your doctor will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important. For Lyme disease, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment at any time.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Lyme disease has many nonspecific symptoms that often are found in other conditions, such as viral infections, various joint disorders, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and even depression. Sometimes, these common conditions are misdiagnosed as Lyme disease. What's more, the ticks that transmit Lyme disease also can spread other diseases at the same time.
If you don't have the characteristic Lyme disease rash, your doctor may ask detailed questions about your medical history and do a physical exam. Lab tests to identify antibodies to the bacteria may be used to help confirm the diagnosis. These tests are most reliable a few weeks after an infection, after your body has time to develop antibodies. They include:
Treatments and drugs
Antibiotics are used to treat Lyme disease.
After treatment, a small number of people still experience some symptoms, such as muscle aches and fatigue. The cause of these continuing symptoms is unknown, but extended antibiotic treatment doesn't make them go away. Some experts believe that certain people who get Lyme disease are predisposed to develop an autoimmune response that contributes to their symptoms. More research is needed.
You can decrease your risk of getting Lyme disease with some simple precautions:
Last Updated: 2011-02-16
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