Lyme disease: What you need to know

Woman walking through the woods

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by Borrelia burgdorferi that is transmitted through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick, also called a deer tick. These ticks are tiny, bloodsucking arachnids that are about the size of a poppy seed (nymphs) or a sesame seed (adults). They hide out in wooded areas with bushes and long grass and then attach themselves to people as they brush by.

How many people does it affect?

The disease is a growing health concern in the U.S., affecting about 300,000 Americans a year.

How do I know if I have it?

Flu-like symptoms—aches and pains, tiredness, fever, headaches—and a circular red rash that can be all red or look like a bull’s-eye are common in the disease’s early stages. But not everyone gets a rash. If the disease progresses, more severe symptoms can occur, such as severe headaches and neck stiffness, paralysis of the muscles of the face (facial palsy) or other muscles, severe nerve pain, additional rashes, irregular heartbeat, and arthritis with joint swelling.

There is a blood test for Lyme disease, but it can’t always detect the illness in its very early stages. National Institutes of Health-supported research is currently working on a quicker, more effective test.

What’s the treatment?

If Lyme disease is caught early, oral antibiotics will cure most cases. Treatment with antibiotics delivered through an IV may be needed for more severe cases.

How can I protect myself?

Ticks like to hide in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas, so if you’re doing things like gardening, hiking, camping, or hunting, you should:

  • Wear clothing treated with permethrin.
  • Use Environmental Protection Agency-registered insect repellents marked to work against ticks. Always follow product instructions.
  • Tumble dry clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks. If clothes need washing, use hot water.
  • Take a shower as soon as possible after coming indoors.
  • Do a full body check for ticks when you’re inside. Ticks can attach anywhere on the body. Common biting areas are the scalp, around the ears, underarms, belly button, around the waist, the back, behind the knees, the pelvic area, and on the legs.
  • If you do notice a tick, use pointy tweezers to grab it firmly right where the mouth parts enter the skin, and pull the tick out slowly. Clean the area with rubbing alcohol.

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