Getting Lyme Disease From A Tick Bite

By:    Published: December 12, 2012

a a a

Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States and the 5th most common disease reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Read on to learn more about how Lyme disease is spread from a tick bite and what to do to keep yourself safe.

What Is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is a vector-borne disease, meaning that it is carried from one host to another by an athropod that feeds on blood. This includes ticks and mosquitoes. It is caused by the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi.

Lyme Disease And Tick Bites

Lyme disease is transmitted by the black-legged deer tick. The tick must be attached and feeding for at least 36-48 hours for the infection with Lyme disease to occur, but other infections are possible in a shorter period of time. People who are infected with Lyme disease can also be infected with other tick-borne diseases from the same bite. This includes conditions such as Ehrlichiosis and Babesiosis.

The vast majority of cases occur during the warm spring and summer months, with 94 percent of all cases occurring in 12 states:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • New Jersey
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Cases also occur frequently in the northern, forested region of California.

There are three specific stages of Lyme disease;

  • Stage One: occurs within a few weeks of the tick bite. At this stage the effects of the infection are localized to the area surrounding the bite as well as general flu-like symptoms.
  • Stage Two: occurs within the first months after infection. At this stage the infection has spread and is causing multiple skin lesions. Can also be causing problems with cardiac and neurological systems, but this only occurs in 8-15 percent of cases. It can also cause some rheumatic problems in about 10 percent of cases.
  • Stage Three: occurs several months to a year after the initial infection. At this stage the infection is widespread and causing pain as well as neurological problems including dementia. Lyme disease can still be treated at this stage, but the person will likely have some lasting effects.

Causes And Risk Factors

Lyme disease is caused exclusively by a bite from an infected deer tick. The ticks live in wooded and brushy areas and they find their way to their human hosts when the humans walk through their habitats. The ticks then migrate to the warm areas of the body to feed.

Not everyone who is bitten by a tick will get Lyme disease, but there is no way to determine who will get infected and who won't, so it's best to be cautious with every bite.

There are some risk factors associated with Lyme disease from a tick bite:

  • Participating in outdoor activities such as gardening, hunting, or hiking in areas where ticks are known to inhabit.
  • Having pets in the home that go out into areas where ticks reside.
  • Walking in areas with high grass such as fields.

Symptoms

The symptoms associated with Lyme disease vary based upon the stage of the infection. In the beginning it can be easy to mistake the symptoms as something as simple as the flu.

In stage one, symptoms may come and go, and include:

  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Stiff neck
  • Muscle aches
  • Itching all over the body
  • Generally feeling unwell

Erythema Migrans: This bull's eye shaped rash occurs in 80 percent of cases of Lyme disease. It will spread outward from the bite and can vary in size between 4-20 inches.

Symptoms of stage two include:

  • Muscle pain or joint paint
  • Swelling in joints
  • Paralysis or weakness in the face
  • Heart problems, such as palpitations

Symptoms of stage three include:

  • Speech problems
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Abnormal muscle movements
  • Numbness and tingling

Treatment And Prevention

Treatment of Lyme disease is usually fairly simple. In most cases, prevention is the best treatment. If you are going into an area known to be inhabited by ticks, you should:

  • Wear protective clothing that has been treated with permethrin. It will stay effective after several washings.
  • Use bug repellant sprays that contain DEET; the higher the percentage the better.
  • Avoid wooded or grassy areas that have a high amount of leaf debris.
  • Walk in the center of trials.
  • Shower as soon as possible to wash off ticks that are crawling on the skin.
  • Conduct a full body tick check at least once a day. Look in areas such as armpits, navels, groin, between legs, in the hair, and in and around the ears.
  • Check gear and pets for ticks. Pets can be treated with sprays that contain permethrin, and clothing and other soft gear can be tumbled in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill any remaining ticks.
  • Pets should have regular tick prevention. Talk to a vet for product recommendations.

If someone is bitten by a tick, he can start preventative antibiotics immediately to prevent an infection from occurring.

The most common antibiotic used in treating and preventing a Lyme disease infection is doxycycline. However some people can't take this antibiotic, so amoxicillin or cefuroxime can be used, but the dosage will need to be higher and the course of treatment will be longer.

Other treatment options will depend upon the severity of the infection. For instance, cardiac problems may be treated separately from the infection itself.

Complications

Over time, if left untreated, symptoms can become severe and lead to problems with the heart, neurological system, muscles and joints. There is a phenomenon called post-Lyme disease syndrome. The cause is unknown, but the symptoms can still interfere with everyday life.

Treating Lyme disease early is essential for full recovery. So for those who notice a tick bite on their body, they should remove the tick immediately and seek medical attention to ensure that they don't develop Lyme disease.

Sources:

  • CDC
  • PubMed Health
  • Mayo Clinic
  • Pocket Medicine, Fourth Edition. Marc S. Sabatine MD, MPH. The Massachusetts General Hospital Handbook of Internal Medicine, 2010.

More in Health A-Z

New on SymptomFind

a a a