A. Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, most commonly contracted from a tick bite, that may initially cause a flu-like sickness. Untreated, or inadequately treated, it may cause long-term, persistent illness that can affect many systems of the body. Other tick-borne diseases are often contracted at the same time. Lyme disease is caused by a bacterial spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb). Note that “Lyme disease” will refer to all the common tick-borne diseases present in the U.S.
Basics – General Information
A. Lyme Disease (LD) is spread primarily through the bite of the deer tick in the eastern and central U.S., and the black-legged tick in the western U.S. The Lone Star tick has also been associated with Lyme disease. Some researchers believe that other ticks and some biting insects such as mosquitoes, fleas, biting flies, and lice may also transmit LD. Babies may be born infected if the mother is infected, or possibly acquire it through breast milk. A blood transfusion with Lyme-infected blood may transmit the disease to the recipient, although this has only been proven for Babesiosis, another common tick-borne disease.
Some medical researchers believe that Lyme, or other tick-borne diseases, can be sexually transmitted, although there has never been any research to prove that. Lyme spirochetes have been found in many bodily fluids.
A. This can be a problem because the symptoms of LD are similar to those of many common infections, and mimic some of the symptoms of other diseases. One sign that is unmistakable is the development of a “bull’s eye” rash around the site of a tick bite. If you have this rash, you have Lyme disease.
The Lyme rash varies considerably in different people, but it is typically centered on the tick bite and may range from a fraction of an inch to many inches in diameter. It may be colored anywhere from a mild red to a deep purple. It may appear in a few days or even several weeks after the bite. Two weeks is typical. It may spread to other areas of the body, or there may be additional rashes which may be far from the primary one. The classic rash has concentric areas of lighter and darker colors and expands with time, but the rash is not always in a bull’s eye form. It is usually painless, but it may be warm to the touch and may itch. Typically it is flat, but some people have raised areas or bumps in the rash. Unfortunately, not everyone develops a rash, and many people fail to notice it if it is in a hard-to-see location, such as the scalp. Fewer than half the people who develop LD recall a rash or a tick bite.
Other symptoms may appear at the same time. These often mimic a cold or flu, with fever, headache, muscle and joint pains, and/or general fatigue, but usually without nasal congestion. Early Lyme can produce a wide range of symptoms, or no symptoms at all, and is different in each person. The varied symptoms may change rapidly, sometimes within hours.
The symptoms may disappear in a few days or weeks (even without treatment), or may be so minor that the infected person barely notices them. Since flu season is during the winter months, and most LD infections occur during the summer, any case of “flu” in summertime should be considered suspect.
A. Even if these initial symptoms subside, the bacteria can remain in your body and may harm you later. In other cases, symptoms become increasingly severe, requiring prompt medical attention. In persistent Lyme disease, the most frequent symptoms are severe fatigue, pains that seem to have no obvious cause, and neurological and/or psychiatric problems. The disease may involve multiple body systems and organs. Symptoms may be complicated by other tick-borne co-infections acquired from the same or another tick bite.
Doctors with experience in treating Lyme disease often prescribe no less than six weeks of antibiotic treatment for a tick bite with a bull’s eye rash. If your doctor does not agree with this approach, it may be prudent to search for a doctor who will support extended treatment. Short-term treatment has been associated with a greater likelihood of relapse.