Lyme disease is often associated with heavily wooded or grassy areas where mice and deer live. It's most common in the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, and the northern Midwest states.
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which is found in small animals like mice and deer. Ixodes ticks (also called black-legged or deer ticks) that feed on these animals can then transmit Borrelia burgdorferi to people through tick bites.
Ticks are small and can be hard to see. Immature ticks, or nymphs, are about the size of a poppy seed; adult ticks are about the size of a sesame seed.
It's important to know and watch for symptoms of Lyme disease because ticks are hard to find and it's easy to overlook a tick bite — in fact, many people who get Lyme disease don't remember being bitten. The good news is that most tick bites don't result in Lyme disease.
Lyme disease can affect different body systems, such as the nervous system, joints, skin, and heart. Symptoms are often described as happening in three stages (although not everyone experiences all three):
The rash sometimes has a characteristic "bull's-eye" appearance, with a central red spot surrounded by clear skin that is ringed by an expanding red rash. It also can appear as an expanding ring of solid redness. It is usually flat and painless, but sometimes can be warm to the touch, itchy, scaly, burning or prickling. The rash may appear and feel very different from one person to the next, and it might be more difficult to see on people with darker skin tones, where it can look like a bruise. It expands over the course of days to weeks, and eventually disappears on its own. Along with the rash, a person may have flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, headache, and muscle aches.
If you think your child could be at risk for Lyme disease or has been bitten by a tick, call your doctor. Although other conditions can cause similar symptoms, it's always wise to contact your doctor. This is especially true if your child develops a red-ringed rash, flu-like symptoms, joint pain or a swollen joint, or facial paralysis. That way your child can get further evaluation and treatment, if necessary, before the disease progresses too far.
There's no surefire way to avoid getting Lyme disease. But you can minimize your family's risk.
Be aware of ticks in high-risk areas like shady, moist ground cover or areas with tall grass, brush, shrubs, and low tree branches. Lawns and gardens may harbor ticks, too, especially at the edges of woods and forests and around old stone walls (areas where deer and mice, the primary hosts of the deer tick, thrive).
If you or your kids spend a lot of time outdoors, take precautions:
If you use an insect repellent containing DEET, always follow the recommendations on the product's label and don't overapply it. Place DEET on shirt collars and sleeves and pant cuffs, and only use it directly on exposed areas of skin. Be sure to wash it off when you go back indoors.
No vaccine for Lyme disease is currently on the market in the United States.
Lyme disease is usually treated with a 2- to 4-week course of antibiotics. Cases that are diagnosed quickly and treated with antibiotics almost always have a good outcome. A person should be feeling back to normal within several weeks after beginning treatment.
Lyme disease is not contagious, so it can't spread from person to person. But people can get it more than once from ticks that live on deer, in the woods, or travel on pets. So continue to practice caution even if you or your child has already had Lyme disease.
You should know how to remove a tick just in case one lands on you or your child. First, don't panic. The risk of developing Lyme disease after being bitten by a tick is only about 1% to 2%. On top of that, it takes at least 24 to 48 hours for the tick to transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. (To be safe, though, you'll want to remove the tick as soon as possible.) This is why a daily tick check is a good idea for people who live in high-risk areas.
If you find a tick:
Tick bites don't generally hurt — that's part of the difficulty in knowing whether someone has Lyme disease because pain usually helps to call attention to problems. So be on the lookout for ticks and rashes, and call your doctor if you're at all concerned.