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Lyme disease

9-minute read

Key facts

  • Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria borrelia burgdorferi.
  • It’s spread to humans through a tick bite.
  • Scientists have not found the bacteria that carry Lyme disease in Australian ticks.
  • The Australian Government does not support the diagnosis of locally acquired Lyme disease.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria borrelia burgdorferi. It’s transmitted (spread) to humans through a tick bite. There is no evidence that Lyme disease can be spread from person-to-person.

Lyme disease is found in parts of the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Asia. Lyme disease has been diagnosed in Australia in overseas travellers.

Scientists have not found the bacteria that carry Lyme disease in Australian ticks. You are not likely you can catch Lyme disease in Australia.

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?

Lyme disease can affect your:

Symptoms typically start within 30 days of being bitten by an infected tick. However, some people get no symptoms and others have mild symptoms.

Lyme disease is divided into 3 stages:

  1. Stage 1 — Early Stage
  2. Stage 2 — Early Dissemination
  3. Stage 3 — Late Dissemination

The symptoms experienced in each stage depends on:

  • the type of bacteria causing the infection
  • where you were infected

Early symptoms of Lyme disease are:

  • headache
  • muscle and joint aches
  • fever
  • feeling tired
  • stiff neck
  • trouble concentrating

Most people with Lyme disease notice a rash that appears between 7 and 14 days after a tick bite. Typically, the rash is target-shaped and centred around the tick bite.

The rash may be tender, but it usually isn’t itchy or painful. About 8 in 10 people develop a rash. Not everybody with Lyme disease gets a rash.

In the later stages of Lyme disease, you may develop symptoms that affect your heart, nervous system or joints.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes Lyme disease?

You can get Lyme disease if you’re bitten by a tick carrying borrelia bacteria. There are different species of borrelia bacteria that can cause Lyme disease.

Ticks are insect-sized 8-legged animals that can cling onto your skin. They live on the ground and can climb 20 to 70cm up grasses and bushes.

Ticks can attach to any part of your body. They are often found in hard-to-see areas such as your:

  • groin
  • armpits
  • scalp
  • waistband area
  • under your breasts
  • behind your knees

In young children, tick bites are more common on the head (including the scalp) and the neck.

When ticks find a host, they attach themselves and pierce your skin to take a blood meal. They may inject a small amount of their saliva. This has anaesthetic (numbing) properties, which means that you don’t notice the tick.

How long a tick is attached to you is an important predictor of Lyme disease infection. The longer the tick is attached, the more likely it is that you will get Lyme disease.

The risk of Lyme disease is considered small if the tick is attached to you for less than 72 hours.

Other illnesses caused by Australian ticks

Other diseases that are known to be caused by tick bites in Australia are:

  • Australian Spotted Fever
  • Flinders Island Spotted Fever
  • Q-Fever
  • Queensland tick typhus

When should I see my doctor?

If you think you have Lyme disease you should visit your doctor. They can diagnose your condition and provide treatment.

Also see your doctor if you think you have a tick and you need help or advice on removing it.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is Lyme disease diagnosed?

Your doctor will examine you and ask you about your travel history before making a diagnosis.

You may have a blood test to confirm the diagnosis.

The Australian Government does not support the diagnosis of locally acquired Lyme disease. This is because scientists have not found borrelia burgdorferi in Australian ticks.

Instead, it recognises that a group of people experience debilitating symptom complexes that some people attribute to ticks (DSCATT).

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is Lyme disease treated?

If you have Lyme disease, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat your infection. They may also refer you to an expert in infectious diseases.

Can Lyme disease be prevented?

Currently there is no vaccine to protect against Lyme disease.

If you’re travelling to an area where ticks are common, you should protect yourself against tick bites. You can do this by:

  • wearing appropriate clothing — long sleeved shirts, long pants tucked into socks
  • using insect repellent containing DEET or picaridin — reapply according to the directions
  • checking your body carefully for ticks each day

If you can, wear light coloured clothing. This lets you see the ticks easily before they attach to you.

How do I check my body for ticks?

Look and feel for ticks:

  • under your arms
  • in and around your ears
  • inside your belly button
  • behind your knees
  • in your hair
  • between your legs
  • around your waist

It’s a good idea to take a bath or shower soon after being outdoors. This has been shown to reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease.

Remove ticks as soon as possible.

How to remove a tick safely

Current advice supports the killing of ticks by freezing them using an ether-containing spray.

It is important to kill the tick first. This prevents more saliva being injected into you.

DO NOT try pulling the tick out with household tweezers or fingernails.

If you can’t freeze the tick, leave the tick in place and get urgent medical help.

If you're allergic to ticks, a doctor needs to remove the tick. You should follow the advice on your ASCIA allergy action plan.

Complications of Lyme disease

Neurological complications most often occur in the second stage of Lyme disease. They include:

  • numbness
  • pain
  • weakness
  • Bell's palsy — paralysis or weakness on one side of your face
  • problems with your eyesight
  • meningitis-like symptoms such as fever, stiff neck, and bad headache

Other neurological problems may not appear for weeks, months, or years after a bite. These include:

  • finding it hard to concentrate
  • memory and sleep disorders
  • nerve damage in the arms and legs

Some people believe that a form of ‘chronic Lyme disease’ exists in Australia. However, this is a disputed diagnosis as there is a lack of supporting evidence.

Resources and support

The Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care has information about diseases caused by ticks.

The Lyme Disease Association of Australia has more information and resources on Lyme disease.

Visit the tiara website for information about ticks and how to remove them.

If you have question about Lyme disease you can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2023

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