What is Lyme Disease?

A spirochete

Lyme disease, or 'Borreliosis', is a bacterial infection passed to humans through a tick bite. It is currently the fastest growing vector-borne disease. The bacteria is shaped like a corkscrew (called a spirochete) which enables it to burrow through body tissue which most other bacteria wouldn't be able to penetrate.

Infection starts with a tick bite and symptoms usually follow a few days or weeks after a bite. The first signs are an erythema migrans (EM), or "bulls eye" rash that generally radiates outwards from the source of the bite. Presence of a rash is a strong indicator of infection with Lyme disease although it might not be present in up to 50% of patients. Chronic flu like symptoms and fatigue are usually experienced soon after an infection.

Occasionally, the patient may carry Lyme disease but have no outwardly obvious symptoms. Ill health may crop up years later following an illness or period of stress. This leads to disseminated (or late) Lyme disease, where symptoms are similar to Multiple Sclerosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Parkinson’s disease. Lyme disease can lead to joint pain, weakness, muscle aches, pelvic pain, visual problems, tremors, headaches and heart problems, and can even result in paralysis and loss of sight. For a full list of symptoms click here.

Treatment is by a course of antibiotics and if caught and treated within a few weeks it is normally successful. However infections lasting more than a few weeks become increasingly difficult to treat needing long courses of antibiotics and in some cases intravenous antibiotics may have to be used. Symptoms become more varied and debilitating the longer an infection is left untreated. Chronic Lyme disease occurs in patients who remain untreated for a long time.

Testing techniques for Lyme disease have limitations and can prove to be falsely positive or negative. Therefore it is important to take into account the clinical history of a tick bite or exposure to ticks. See our Diagnosis page for more information.

A video on Lyme Disease has been released by the BBC and is available here for more information: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-13447191