Lyme Disease: A-to-Z Guide from Diagnosis to Treatment to Prevention

Lyme disease was first brought to medical attention in 1975, by two mothers living in Lyme, Connecticut who were concerned with an unexplained illness.

Even with our long history on this planet, new discoveries about microscopic neighbors continue to be made. In the 1970s, it was Legionnaire’s disease. In the 1980s, it was AIDS. In the 1990s, Hantavirus made the headlines.

The story of Lyme disease is particularly interesting for two reasons. One is that it illustrates the power of mothers to affect the health of their children, and two, it’s an excellent example of those many situations in our lives, which if attended to at an early stage, are very simple to remedy, but if allowed to take root and grow, become significant problems.

What is lyme disease?

Lyme disease was first brought to medical attention in 1975, when two mothers living in Lyme, Connecticut became frustrated by the lack of concern given to the unusual illness spreading through their community on the banks of the Connecticut River. These two women began to clamor for an investigation. One contacted the Connecticut State Health Department, and the other contacted physicians at Yale Medical Center. Their initiative set in motion a massive investigation, which in 1982 culminated in the discovery of the causative bacteria by Dr. Burgdorfer and colleagues. The bacteria was named Borrelia burgdorferi. At the outset of the investigation, it was noticed that the incidence of Lyme Disease was 30 times greater on the East Bank of the Connecticut River than on the Western Bank. Interviews with affected children and adults and their neighbors revealed that those who exhibited the illness were much more likely to have a cat, a farm animal, a pet with ticks, or a tick bite in the year preceding the illness. As a result, ticks were identified as a likely mechanism for infection. Then, in 1982, Dr. Burgdorfer found the bacteria on a type of deer tick.

Lyme disease is a tick-borne bacterial illness.

Who gets lyme disease?

Lyme disease has been found in 49 of the 50 United States. It is the most common disease caused by a bite in the United States.

Lyme disease is also common in Europe (particularly in Scandinavian countries and in Central Europe — especially Germany, Austria, and Switzerland), but is found throughout the world, including in Australia where none of the ticks are known to exist. Humans are not the only ones susceptible to Lyme disease; dogs and horses also get it.

The bacteria live in deer and white-footed mice who do not develop the illness. When the appropriate tick feeds on one of these animals, it may become infected.

When an infected tick lands on someone, the bacteria are injected into the bloodstream through the saliva of the tick or deposited on the skin in tick feces. Thankfully, most ticks are not infected.

Even if someone is bitten by a nymphal stage deer tick that is infected, the risk of acquiring Lyme disease is only about 8 to 10 percent. It takes hours for the mouth parts of a tick to plant fully into the skin and much longer (days) for the tick to feed. Experiments have shown that it takes more than 36 hours of feeding before the risk becomes substantial.

What are the symptoms of lyme disease?

The symptoms in Lyme Disease can be divided into three stages. In the first stage, a characteristic skin rash is the most prominent feature; in the second stage cardiac and neurologic findings predominate; and in the third stage, arthritis is the classic symptom.

The classic early manifestation of Lyme disease is a round rash called erythema migrans. The rash usually occurs at the site of the bite 7 to 14 days after the tick has bitten, though it has occurred as early as 3 days and as long as 32 days later. Without treatment, the rash gradually expands (hence the name migrans) to an average of 6 inches in diameter, but may be as large as 26 inches. The rash remains present for at least one to two weeks and usually twice that. At this stage, treatment is very simple with common antibiotics. The symptoms usually resolve within several days. People with the skin lesions may have no other symptoms, but may also feel fatigue, headache, stiff neck, joint aches and pains, and sometimes nausea, vomiting, and sore throat. There is often a low-grade fever, but it can be as high as 104 degrees F with chills.

Neurologic abnormalities occur roughly four weeks after the tick bite, but they can occur as early as two weeks after the bite and up to months or even years later with a wide spectrum of involvement. It may be something as mild as meningeal irritation and headache, but can be as severe as meningitis or encephalitis. Cardiac abnormalities occur in only about 10 percent of patients, averaging five weeks after the tick bite and thankfully are relatively brief, lasting no longer than six weeks.

The arthritis of the third stage usually begins five to six weeks after the bite, although it may occur as early as one week afterwards or as late as many months later. Large joints, often those closest to the initial rash, are most often affected.

Is lyme disease contagious?

It is not spread from person to person, except by blood transfusions or blood exchange.

How long does lyme disease last?

Lyme disease can last until treated. Treatment may last for 4 weeks.

How is lyme disease diagnosed?

The diagnosis is suspected because of the clinical picture, including the rash and/or flu-like illness in the summer. The diagnosis is confirmed by blood tests, although false negative and false positive blood tests are common.

Should you try to save the tick? It’s a good idea to bring the tick to your pediatrician or the public health department for visual identification. The current recommendation, however, is not to have all ticks actually tested for the Lyme bacteria, since even if it is present there is at least a 90 percent chance that the bitten person would not have contracted the disease.

How is lyme disease treated?

Treatment of early disease usually includes 14 to 21 days of appropriate antibiotics. The rash usually resolves in a few days. Treatment of late or complicated Lyme disease often requires IV or IM antibiotics for 21 to 28 days.

How can lyme disease be prevented?

Preventing prolonged tick bites is the best way to prevent Lyme disease. Children should wear long sleeves and long pants tucked into socks whenever outdoors in endemic areas. They should be inspected carefully (especially the hairy parts of the body) when returning from tick-infested areas and the ticks should be removed promptly.

Should everyone who is bitten get amoxicillin just in case? Experts have worked out what would happen if everyone who was bitten by a tick were to receive amoxicillin. Even though amoxicillin is a gentle antibiotic, there would be more suffering from side effects and allergic reactions than the suffering it would prevent by getting a jump start on treating those who actually have Lyme disease. It’s better to wait for the first signs and symptoms before treating.

No vaccine is available to prevent Lyme disease. In 1998, the FDA had approved a vaccine for people 15-70 years of age, but iIt’s manufacturer removed it from the market in 2002.

Borrelia burgdorferi

Last medical review on: October 17, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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