Introduction 

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread to humans by infected ticks.

Ticks are tiny arachnids found in woodland areas that feed on the blood of mammals, including humans.  

Tick bites often go unnoticed and the tick can remain feeding for several days before dropping off. The longer the tick is in place, the higher the risk of it passing on the infection. Read more about the causes of Lyme disease.

Lyme disease can affect your skin, joints, heart and nervous system.  

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?

The earliest and most common symptom of Lyme disease is a pink or red circular rash that develops around the area of the bite, three to 30 days after someone is bitten. The rash is often described as looking like a bull’s-eye on a dart board.

You may also experience flu-like symptoms, such as tiredness, headaches and muscle or joint pain.

If Lyme disease is left untreated, further symptoms may develop months or even years later and can include:

  • muscle pain
  • joint pain and swelling of the joints
  • neurological symptoms, such as temporary paralysis of the facial muscles

Lyme disease in its late stages can trigger symptoms similar to those of fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. This is known as chronic Lyme disease, although more research into this form of Lyme disease is needed.

A person with Lyme disease is not contagious because the infection can only be spread by ticks.

Read more about the symptoms of Lyme disease.

Unless in its early stages when a rash is present, diagnosing Lyme disease is often difficult as many of the symptoms are similar to those of other conditions. If Lyme disease is suspected, blood tests may be able to confirm the diagnosis, but they often need to be carried out a few weeks after infection to reduce the risk of false-negative results.

Read more about diagnosing Lyme disease.

Diagnosed cases of Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics. Your course of antibiotics will depend on the stage of your Lyme disease, but you will usually need to take them for two to four weeks.

Read more about treating Lyme disease.

How common is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne infectious disease in the UK, Europe and North America. People who spend time in woodland or heath areas are more at risk of developing Lyme disease because these areas are where tick-carrying animals, such as deer and mice, live.

Public Health England estimates there are 2,000 to 3,000 cases of Lyme disease in England and Wales each year, and that about 15% of cases occur while people are abroad.

Cases of Lyme disease have been reported throughout the UK, but areas known to have a particularly high population of ticks include:

  • Exmoor
  • the New Forest in Hampshire
  • the South Downs
  • parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire
  • Thetford Forest in Norfolk
  • the Lake District
  • the Yorkshire Moors
  • the Scottish Highlands

Most tick bites happen in late spring, early summer and autumn because these are the times of year when most people take part in outdoor activities, such as hiking and camping.

Read more about the causes of Lyme disease.

Preventing Lyme disease

There is currently no vaccine to prevent Lyme disease. In 2002, a vaccine was introduced in America but was later withdrawn because of concerns over side effects.

The best way of preventing Lyme disease is to avoid being bitten when you are in wooded or heath areas known to have a high tick population. The following precautions might help prevent Lyme disease:

  • Wear a long-sleeved shirt.
  • Tuck your trousers into your socks.
  • Use insect repellent.
  • Check yourself for ticks.
  • Check your children and pets for ticks.

If you do find a tick on your or your child's skin, remove it by gently gripping it as close to the skin as possible, preferably using fine-toothed tweezers, and pull steadily away from the skin.

Never use a lit cigarette end, a match head or essential oils to force the tick out.

Read more about preventing Lyme disease.

The ticks that cause Lyme disease are commonly found in woodland and heath areas 

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Page last reviewed: 14/05/2013

Next review due: 14/05/2015