Disease Center

Lyme Disease

What is it?

Arthritis is a complex family of musculoskeletal disorders consisting of more than 100 different diseases or conditions that destroy joints, bones, muscles, cartilage and other connective tissues, hampering or halting physical movement. Lyme disease is an infectious disease that can cause arthritis as one of its symptoms. The infection occurs when a deer tick that is infected with the spirochete bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi bites a human and transmits the bacteria to the human. The bacteria usually produce a rash and mild flu-like symptoms at first. These symptoms are often not noticed or are ignored by the person. After weeks and months of untreated infection, more symptoms may develop, including heart and nervous system problems and arthritis.

Lyme disease can be cured with antibiotic treatment. If the disease is caught early, treatment does not take too long and is very successful. If the disease has gone on for a long time before antibiotics are begun, treatment may take a while and it can take months for the symptoms to clear up.

Anyone who is bitten by an infected tick can develop Lyme disease. Ticks in different sections of the United States and Europe are most likely to be carrying the bacteria. Endemic areas of the United States include the northeastern, middle Atlantic and north central states, as well as some areas of the north Pacific coast. Children tend to get Lyme disease more often than adults because they tend to play in the tall grass and woods where deer ticks live.

What are the effects?

Lyme disease always starts with a bite of a deer tick that carries the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. Deer ticks are tiny (juveniles are about the size of a poppy seed and adults, the size of a sesame seed) and their bites are painless, so you most likely will not know that you’ve been bitten. Most bites occur on moist area of the body: the armpits, groin, back of knees, belt line and back of neck at hairline. Studies show that the tick needs to have been attached and feeding for 36 to 48 hours before it passes the bacteria to the host. Symptoms of Lyme disease include a rash and flu-like symptoms.

How is it diagnosed?

Early diagnosis and treatment are important for preventing the more serious disease manifestations that can occur after months of untreated infection. To diagnose your illness, your doctor will examine you and ask you a series of questions. If your history and symptoms point to Lyme disease, he or she will order a blood test that can detect antibodies to Borrelia. Early in the disease, however, antibody responses may be undetectable. If you have the early symptoms of Lyme disease and live in an area in which Lyme disease is common, your doctor may start treatment before your blood tests show that you have antibodies to Borrelia.

What are the treatment options?

Antibiotic treatment for Borrelia burgdorferi infection in early Lyme disease usually prevents progression and is curative. Early in the disease, oral antibiotics are usually sufficient. Later in the disease, once the heart, nervous system and joints are involved, intravenous antibiotics may be necessary. People with Lyme arthritis may take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or corticosteroids to ease joint pain and swelling while waiting for the antibiotic therapy to take effect.

What resources are available?

 The Arthritis Foundation leads the way in helping people with arthritis live better today and create better tomorrows through new treatments, better access and, ultimately, cures. We do this by:

  • Funding life-changing research that has restored mobility in patients for more than six decades
  • Fighting for health care policies that improve the lives of the millions of Americans with arthritis
  • Partnering with families to provide empowering programs and information

 If you are diagnosed with lyme disease, some Arthritis Foundation resources that may help you better manage and live with your disease are:



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