What is Lyme Disease? Everything You Need to Know About the Tick-Borne Infection


Lyme disease is a potentially debilitating infection caused by bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, and is transmitted through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick.

“For some people, Lyme is easily treated but for others this disease is devastating,” says Linda Giampa, executive director of the Bay Area Lyme Foundation. The CDC has also documented cases in which Lyme has been fatal.

Early stage symptoms include headaches, flu-like symptoms, joint pain, fatigue and sometimes a rash that has many different shapes including one which may look like a bullseye centered on the tick bite.  “It’s important to note that less than 50% of patients get a bullseye rash,” says Giampa.

Late stage Lyme symptoms can include paralysis, agonizing joint pain, neurological problems, severe headaches, problems with memory, hearing, and vision, inflammation of the brain, and inflammation of the heart.  A majority of patients suffering with late stage Lyme disease never even remember getting a tick bite.

While the majority of cases are in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, Lyme has been reported in all 50 states. 329,000 or more new cases of Lyme disease are diagnosed each year in the U.S., according statistics released in 2015 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prevention is key when it comes to Lyme. Here are some basic tips provided by the Bay Area Lyme Foundation.

Conduct thorough tick checks routinely after outdoor activity. Check yourself and children for ticks under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and especially in the hair.

Create a tick safe zone. Ticks like the woods and areas with high humidity. Most ticks are found within 9 feet of your lawn’s edge – especially near the woods, stone walls, or ornamental plantings. They do not like the sunny, manicured areas of lawns.

Know the symptoms. Lyme symptoms usually appear days or weeks after infection. At this stage Lyme is the easiest to cure.

Know how to remove a tick.  Don’t yank it out. By doing so, the tick’s head could remain in the skin along with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. Instead use pointy tweezers and gently pull the tick straight up and away from your skin.

Walk in the middle of trails and avoid sitting on logs or leaning on trees.

Cover up – wear a hat and tuck in your hair; wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants tucked into your socks, and hiking boots.

Wear light-colored clothes. It’s easier to see ticks.

Put clothes in a hot dryer for one hour after being in woods.

Check common places to which ticks might latch-on – under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist and especially in the hair.

Shower immediately after playing or hiking in tick-infested areas (showers can wash away hard to spot ticks that have not yet latched on or become engorged.

Myth About Lime Disease

Lyme disease is the most common insect-borne illness in the United States, by far. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logs some 30,000 cases each year, and the agency says ten-fold more go unreported.

With so many people affected, it's little wonder how much misinformation there is on the subject. Depending on where your web-searching takes you, you might be persuaded that the disease can be sexually transmitted like Zika (it can't), or spread through contaminated deer meat (not true), or that pretty much any tick bite guarantees you'll be infected (it doesn't).

You might also think the question of how Lyme disease can and can’t spread is a silly one to ask at the end of summer. Don’t ticks die off, along with all other biting insects, once autumn arrives?

Unfortunately, they don't.

In fact, adult tick populations tend to swell in mid-fall—especially in the northeastern states, where Lyme is most prevalent. “Things quiet down in August and September,” says Thomas Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Vector Borne Disease Center, and one of the nation’s foremost tick experts. “But then bam! In about the second week of October, we get a ticknado.”

Mather says that because most people aren't aware of this surge, they become complacent once the temperature drops. Flea collars come off, insect repellents get packed away, and average woods-walking humans stop checking for ticks. “It’s a battle to keep this stuff in people’s minds once you hit September," Mather says.

To help with that battle, and to dispel some persistent myths, Consumer Reports compiled a rundown of what science says about how you can and can’t catch Lyme disease, along with some reminders about how to stay safe this fall.

How Lyme Disease Does NOT Spread
Let's start with the myths.

Sexual transmission: A 2014 study found B. burgdorferi— the bacteria that transmits Lyme Disease—in vaginal secretions and semen from infected study participants, but not from uninfected control groups. The study’s authors noted that the bacteria itself resembles the syphilis bacteria (both are spiral-shaped), and suggested that their results point to sexual transmission. But finding infectious microbes in the genital track is not the same as proving that they were deposited there during sex. So far, the CDC says—and most experts agree—that there is no solid epidemiological evidence to substantiate this claim.

Blood and breast milk: No cases of Lyme disease have been linked to either breast milk or blood transfusions. However, the bacteria have been found in stored blood, and the American Red Cross advises anyone who has tested positive for Lyme disease to hold off donating until their treatment is complete and their tests come back negative.

Animals and other insects: It’s true that forest critters and household pets can bring disease-laden ticks into your yard, and thus into close proximity with you. It’s also true that dogs can develop the actual disease. But none of these animals can pass the bacteria directly on to you. Neither can mosquitoes, fleas, lice, or any tick species other than the two noted above. (Neither the Lone Star tick, nor the American dog tick nor the Rocky Mountain wood tick have been shown to pass Lyme. Only the black-legged varieties).

Eating meat: There is no credible evidence that Lyme can spread through contaminated food, including deer or squirrel meat. You’ll still want to cook your meat thoroughly, of course. And also be mindful of ticks when you are hunting or dressing deer to eat.

How Lyme Disease Spreads
The list of ways you can catch Lyme disease is conspicuously shorter, especially given how many people are infected each year. The illness is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a spiral-shaped bacteria that can be passed to humans from just two types of tick: the black-legged or “deer” tick (Ixodes scapularis) in the northeastern United States, and the Western black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificus) along the

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