What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria transmitted in a tick bite. The types of tick that carry the bacteria are not native to Australia and it’s not likely you can catch Lyme disease in Australia.
Researchers are investigating whether Australian ticks can cause Lyme disease or Lyme disease-like symptoms. People bitten by ticks in USA, Europe or Asia can return to Australia with Lyme disease. It is not possible to catch Lyme disease from someone else.
Read about the latest Australian findings on Lyme disease.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
Most people with Lyme disease notice a rash that appears between 3 and 30 days after a tick bite. The rash may be tender, but it usually isn’t itchy or painful. Not everybody with Lyme disease gets a rash.
Other early symptoms of Lyme disease are:
If it’s not treated, Lyme disease can spread and cause infection in the brain or the membranes around the brain and spinal cord (meningo-encephalitis) or around the heart (endocarditis, myocarditis or pericarditis). Later symptoms of Lyme disease, days to months after the tick bite, include:
- severe headaches
- stiff neck
- rashes on other parts of the body
- a drooping face (palsy)
- severe joint pain and swelling, arthritis
- heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat
- dizziness and shortness of breath
- nerve pain (shooting pain, numbness or tingling)
Lyme disease can also cause long-term problems with the joints and the brain.
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What causes Lyme disease?
You can get Lyme disease if you’re bitten by a tick carrying Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria.
Ticks are insect-sized 8-legged animals that can cling onto the skin. They can pierce the skin and inject their saliva, which may contain the bacteria, into the wound to draw blood for food. A tick has to be attached for at least 36 hours before the bacteria can be transmitted.
How is Lyme disease diagnosed?
Your doctor will examine you and ask you if you’ve been in an area where you may have been bitten by a tick before making a diagnosis.
You may have a blood test to confirm the diagnosis.
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How is Lyme disease treated?
If you have Lyme disease, your doctor may refer you to an expert in infectious diseases, who may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection and minimise the chances of any long-term complications such as arthritis and memory problems. Long-term treatment with antibiotics is not recommended.
Other causes of Lyme disease symptoms
Sometimes people think they have the symptoms of Lyme disease, but it is a different disease caused by ticks. Diseases caused by tick bites that are known in Australia are:
- Queensland tick typhus
- Australian Spotted Fever
- Flinders Island Spotted Fever
- Q fever
- mammalian meat allergy
Sometimes there is no known diagnosis for symptoms such as fatigue, disordered thinking, disturbances of the senses, joint pain and headaches. These symptoms are real and can be very debilitating. In this case, you doctor will work with you to manage the symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Can Lyme disease be prevented?
If you’re travelling to an area where ticks are common, especially in spring or summer:
- wear long sleeves, long pants and long socks
- use insect repellent containing DEET
- check your body carefully and regularly
Remove ticks as soon as possible.
It is important to kill the tick first to prevent more saliva from being forced into the wound. Kill the tick with a product that quickly freezes it, such as a spray used to treat warts. Then gently remove it with tweezers when it is dead. This method will also lower your chances of developing an allergy to ticks. If you are allergic to ticks, you need the tick to be removed by a doctor.
Read more about preventing and treating insect bites.
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Last reviewed: March 2021