Lyme Disease Symptoms & Diagnosis

From a Circular Rash to Chronic Neurological Complaints


The Lyme disease bacterium can infect several parts of the body, producing different symptoms at different times. Not all patients with Lyme disease will have all symptoms, and many of the symptoms can occur with other diseases as well. If you believe you may have Lyme disease, it is important that you consult your health care provider for proper diagnosis.

The first sign of infection is usually a circular rash called erythema migrans or EM. This rash occurs in approximately 70-80% of infected persons and begins at the site of a tick bite after a delay of 3-30 days. A distinctive feature of the rash is that it gradually expands over a period of several days, reaching up to 12 inches (30 cm) across.

The center of the rash may clear as it enlarges, resulting in a bull's-eye appearance. It may be warm but is not usually painful. Some patients develop additional EM lesions in other areas of the body after several days. Patients also experience symptoms of fatigue, chills, fever, headache, and muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. In some cases, these may be the only symptoms of infection.

Blacklegged Deer TickUntreated, the infection may spread to other parts of the body within a few days to weeks, producing an array of discrete symptoms. These include loss of muscle tone on one or both sides of the face (called facial or "Bell's Palsy"), severe headaches and neck stiffness due to meningitis, shooting pains that may interfere with sleep, heart palpitations and dizziness due to changes in heartbeat, and pain that moves from joint to joint. Many of these symptoms will resolve, even without treatment.

After several months, approximately 60% of patients with untreated infection will begin to have intermittent bouts of arthritis, with severe joint pain and swelling. Large joints are most often effected, particularly the knees. In addition, up to 5% of untreated patients may develop chronic neurological complaints months to years after infection. These include shooting pains, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, and problems with concentration and short term memory.

Lyme Disease Diagnosis

Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, objective physical findings (such as erythema migrans, facial palsy, or arthritis), and a history of possible exposure to infected ticks. Validated laboratory tests - serologic testing, can be very helpful but are not generally recommended when a patient has erythema migrans.

When making a diagnosis of Lyme disease, health care providers should consider other diseases that may cause similar illness. Not all patients with Lyme disease will develop the characteristic bulls-eye rash, and many may not recall a tick bite. Laboratory testing is not recommended for persons who do not have symptoms of Lyme disease.

Testing Ticks

Patients who have removed a tick often wonder if they should have it tested. In general, the identification and testing of individual ticks is not useful for deciding if a person should get antibiotics following a tick bite. Nevertheless, some state or local health departments offer tick identification and testing as a community service or for research purposes. Check with your health department; the phone number is usually found in the government pages of the telephone book.



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