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Lyme disease

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Lyme disease is a condition caused by a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, which is spread by an insect called a tick. It is called Lyme disease after the American town where it was first described. The ticks bite an infected animal and then bite us. An infected tick often leaves a classic mark of Lyme disease: a distinctive circular rash, described as a bullseye on a dartboard. This rash may take up to a month to develop, and some don't get it at all. Anyone affected might feel unwell with a fever, muscle aches, headaches and lethargy.

If left untreated, Lyme disease can progress to cause multiple symptoms in many different parts of the body that last weeks or months after the initial infection.

There are three stages of Lyme disease:

  1. Early local skin reaction – this happens 3 to 36 days after being bitten by an infected tick and causes the classical bullseye rash and – in about 1 in 3 cases – a flu-like illness for a few days.

  2. Early disseminated disease, which can happen weeks or months afterwards. This includes joint problems such as pain and swelling (often in the knee), nerve inflammation, palpitations, dizziness and breathlessness.

  3. Late disease. This can happen years later with many possible symptoms, including persistent joint problems, confusion, mood changes and memory problems, weakness and tiredness.

What are ticks?

Ticks are small, spider-like creatures that feed on the blood of animals and humans. They are found in grasslands and woodlands, and sometimes even in your garden. Ticks cling on when someone or something brushes past them. They bite and then start to feed on your blood. You may notice them once they have been feeding, as they swell up into little brown lumps.

They will drop off once they have finished their feed, but this can be days later. Be aware that ticks can transmit bacteria, causing other diseases alongside Lyme disease. Simple self-help can go a long way, and after being out for a long walk, check yourself over for any little mites. Have a good look and feel, including places like the groin and hairlines, get a trusted companion to check less accessible areas. Check your pets too - ticks like furry necks and floppy dogs' ears.

When should I see my doctor?

Not all ticks carry disease. If you have been bitten by a tick, or think you may have been bitten by a tick, watch out for signs that can indicate you need to see a doctor. If you have a rash that looks like a bullseye, you should take a photo and ask your doctor to take a look. Your doctor may prescribe some antibiotic tablets or send you for a blood test to investigate further.

Am I fit for work?

You are fit for work if you have been bitten by a tick. If you have more serious symptoms, you may need to see your doctor.

What will the doctor do?

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and, if you are comfortable, examine you. Depending on the possible diagnosis, further tests such as blood tests may be carried out, or you may be referred to a specialist department. The doctor may prescribe medication such as antibiotics in stage one of the illness.

The doctor may also prescribe some medication to help with your symptoms.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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