Columbia University Medical Center

Lyme Disease Q & A

Q & A on the causes, symptoms, and treatment of Lyme disease

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What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is caused by an infectious bacterium carried by ticks, Borrelia burgdorferi. It is spread when an infected tick bites a host, expelling the contents of its abdomen and salivary glands into the skin. In most cases, the bite creates a circular rash that appears between three and 30 days. After the initial exposure, the bacterium travels from the skin to the host’s brain, heart, muscles, and peripheral nerves. Symptoms may appear rapidly, or the bacterium may lay dormant for months or even years.

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?

Lyme disease has been called the “Great Imitator” for its ability to mimic other diseases, making it difficult to diagnose. The circular rash is the most distinctive sign of Lyme disease. Patients initially experience flu-like symptoms: headache, fever, chills, fatigue, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes. As the disease spreads throughout the body, the symptoms become more severe and may include shooting pains, numbness, and sensitivity to light and sound. If it spreads to the eyes, it can cause conjunctivitis, and if it spreads to the liver, it can cause hepatitis.

How is it treated?

Lyme disease is highly treatable if caught early. Generally, oral antibiotics are prescribed for 10 to 28 days. Treatment may be complicated by a late diagnosis, resistance to antibiotics, or co-existing tick-borne diseases. Although a small number of patients experience lingering symptoms such as fatigue, the vast majority recover completely.

How can I protect myself?

Ticks are fond of areas with overgrown brush, so avoid going off trail when hiking or camping. When out in nature, wear light-colored clothing that covers your arms and legs; tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks. Insect repellent is also effective. Be particularly vigilant in the Northeastern U.S., where Lyme disease is most prevalent. To protect yourself at home, remove brush from high-traffic areas and keep the grass mowed.

 

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