Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States. It is caused by a bacterial infection with Borrelia burgdorferi, which is carried by ticks and transferred to humans through saliva during a tick bite. Awareness of Lyme disease is important because it is completely curable in its early stages with common antibiotics. Chronic disease or long-term untreated disease, on the other hand, can lead to a variety of symptoms with permanent damage to multiple internal organs. In the United States, Lyme disease can be divided into three stages: early localized disease, early disseminated disease, and chronic disease.
Early localized disease includes the symptoms and manifestations that occur soon after the tick bite, while the bacteria have not yet spread beyond the skin. Most commonly, this presents as a skin rash called erythema migrans, which looks like a red ring or "bulls-eye" lesion at the site of a tick bite that slowly expands in size. During this phase, lymph nodes near the rash may also become enlarged.
Early disseminated disease occurs shortly after the bacteria have spread from the skin to the bloodstream and can lead to a variety of different problems, including flu-like illness, muscle and joint pain, nerve problems including facial paralysis and meningitis, cough, and eye problems. It can also affect both the muscle and nerve tissues of the heart, leading to dysrhythmias and heart failure. Be aware that some people never have the initial erythema migrans rash and present with symptoms of early disseminated disease.
Lastly, chronic disease occurs if early Lyme disease goes untreated and can develop anywhere between months to years after the initial infection. Chronic Lyme disease affects the nervous system and can cause inflammation of the brain tissue and nerves, as well as arthritis.
Some measures you can take to protect yourself from Lyme disease include wearing protective clothing when spending time outdoors where ticks may be present (such as wooded areas while hiking) and checking carefully for ticks after hiking. A tick must be attached for 24 hours in order to transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, and therefore finding and removing a tick early is enough to prevent the disease. It is best to remove the tick whole, which can be done with commercial products marketed for this purpose, or carefully with tweezers.
If you think you may have contracted Lyme disease after a tick bite, contact your doctor immediately. He or she will be able to determine if it is appropriate to treat you with antibiotics and/or whether to perform blood tests that can evaluate for the presence of Borrelia infection.