Lyme disease 101: Causes, Symptom, Diagnosis & Treatment

Fatigue, joint pain, a rash, vision changes and more - Lyme disease can present with multiple symptoms. Find out the causes, symptoms, diagnosis & treatment of the disease.

by Shona Yang

According to a recent study, Lyme disease has likely affected more than 14% of the world’s population including celebrities Justin Bieber and Shania Twain. Cases of Lyme disease are also expected to become increasingly common as environmental changes contribute to a growing tick population. There is limited information about the prevalence of Lyme disease in Australia. Learn more about the causes, symptoms and treatment options for Lyme disease here. 

What is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is an infection that occurs when the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria is transmitted to a human through a tick bite. Tick species that carry this bacteria are typically found across Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. 

Existing medical research has not found sufficient evidence to suggest that Lyme disease is contagious or can be transmitted from person-to-person. 

Does Lyme disease exist in Australia? 

The disease was first recognised in 1975 in Old Lyme, a town in Connecticut. Named after the town where it was discovered, Lyme disease remains one of the most common tick-borne illnesses in North America and Europe. 

Did you know? An estimated 476,000 cases of Lyme disease occur in the United States every year. Around 95% of these cases are in 14 states.

Australians with Lyme disease are thought to have contracted the disease overseas. To date, there have been few known cases of infection in Australia.

The tick species carrying the Lyme disease-causing bacteria are not native to Australia, so it is believed by many health professionals that Lyme disease does not exist here. Australian public health records, therefore, do not currently account for Lyme disease, so exact numbers are unknown. 

The few cases of Lyme disease in Australia are predominantly in regional areas and are most likely to affect people who live or spend time in wooded areas. 

Fast fact: According to the Australian Lyme Disease Association, around 33 per cent of Australian patients with Lyme disease live in regional, and remote areas of Australia

Other common tick-borne diseases in Australia may share similar symptoms as Lyme disease. These are classified as ‘debilitating symptom complexes attributed to ticks’ (DSCATT) and can include:

  • Queensland tick typhus
  • Australian Spotted Fever
  • Flinders Island Spotted Fever
  • Q fever
  • mammalian meat allergy 

What Causes Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is one of the most common tick-borne illnesses in the world. It occurs when an individual is bitten by a tick species that carries the Borrelia burgdorferi or Borrelia mayonii bacteria. Ticks that cling to the skin for at least 36 hours can transmit infectious bacteria. 

Only certain tick species carry the infectious Borrelia bacteria that causes Lyme disease. These tick species are not prevalent in Australia, most commonly found in forested areas of Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. 

Did you know? Lyme disease can also occur from bites from small and immature ticks known as nymphs that feed during the spring and summer months. These small ticks can look like poppy seed-sized dots on the skin.

What Are the Symptoms of Lyme disease? 


If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause ongoing and serious health complications. The symptoms relating to Lyme disease can be difficult to differentiate as other tick-borne infections often share the same symptoms. If you notice any of these symptoms, reach out to a medical practitioner for diagnosis and support.

Early Symptoms of Lyme disease 

Within three days of a tick bite, Lyme disease can cause the onset of some early symptoms including: 

  • Rash (appearing anywhere between three to 30 days after a tick bite) 
  • Severe headaches
  • Fatigue 
  • Fever or chills
  • Muscle or joint aches 

Advanced Symptoms of Lyme disease

If Lyme disease remains undiagnosed and untreated, the infection can cause complications to the brain or joints. When the infection spreads to other parts of the body, it can result in heightened symptoms including: 

  • Severe headaches
  • Rashes on other parts of the body
  • Severe joint pain or swelling of lymph nodes
  • Irregular heartbeats or shortness of breath
  • Dropping face. 

The Stages of Lyme Disease

Lyme disease can occur in three stages depending on the symptoms experienced. These stages are: 

Stage 1: Early Localised

The first stage can begin within three days or up to 30 days after a tick bite. At this stage, the infection from a tick bite carrying Borrelia burgdorferi or Borrelia mayonii bacteria has not yet spread throughout the body. 

Early detection is key as Lyme disease is the easiest to cure at this stage.      

What to look for in this stage: 

The early localised stage of Lyme disease is characterised by a rash, usually at the site of the tick bite.

The rash, formally known as ‘erythema migrants can look like a red spot that doesn’t cause itchiness or pain. The colour of the rash may vary between people. 

Not all people with Lyme disease may develop a rash however so additional symptoms in the early localized stage may be helpful to identify. Early localised stage symptoms can include: 

  • Chills or fever
  • Fatigue 
  • Muscle or joint aches
  • Changes in vision 
  • enlarged lymph nodes or sore throat. 

Stage 2: Early Disseminated

This second stage of Lyme disease occurs weeks or months after the tick bite when the bacteria has begun to spread throughout the body and its organs. Symptoms at this stage include: 

  • Rashes in different areas of the body
  • Chest pain, irregular heart movements 
  • Nervous system symptoms include numbness, tingling or facial drooping. 

Stage 3: Late Disseminated 

The third stage of Lyme disease can surface months or years after a tick bite. It occurs when the infection remains untreated in the first or second stage, and the bacterial infection spreads throughout the body. If left untreated, Lyme disease can contribute to chronic conditions such as: 

  • Arthritis and chronic joint pain
  • Sleep disturbance and chronic fatigue
  • Brain disorders, including short-term memory loss or difficulty concentrating
  • Stiff or aching neck 
  • Severe headaches, vertigo or dizziness
  • Severe fatigue
  • Numbness in parts of the body. 

The symptoms of each stage can overlap so it’s important to consult a health professional at the earliest sign of illness. 

Lyme disease: Risk, Prevention and Protection 

Lyme disease is caused by a tick species that carries an infectious bacteria. These tick species are most common in forests in parts of the world including (but not limited to) Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.

Taking caution when travelling to areas where the infectious tick species are most common can help safeguard your health. Here are some ways you can minimise risk and protect yourself from Lyme disease when travelling to areas where the disease is prevalent.  

Before you travel

Do Your Research

Sites such as SmartTraveller can provide you with up-to-date information and warnings about particular risks in the area you’re travelling. 

Ask a Medical Practitioner

Consult your doctor or local health professional about the required vaccinations in the regions you’re visiting. 

Prepare the Right Items

Purchase in advance items such as insect repellent to minimise your risk of bites.

While You Travel

Dress Appropriately

In regional areas, forests, or around animals, protect yourself by wearing long sleeves, long pants and socks to avoid bites. Wearing light-coloured clothing can also make ticks more visible. 

Wear Insect Repellent

Pack a travel-size insect repellent and continue to apply it in high-risk areas. Before visiting, you can also spray your clothing with repellent for further protection.  

Avoid Tick Areas

Tick species are commonly found in piles of wood or leaves, and long grass.

Check Your Body

If you find a tick, take action right away to prevent the transmission of dangerous bacteria. It’s important to kill the tick with a spray that freezes the tick immediately. If you are allergic to ticks, seek medical attention right away. Ticks can attach to any part of the human body but are commonly found in areas such as the groin, armpits, behind the knees or scalp. 

Clean Thoroughly

After spending extensive time outdoors, taking a shower or bath is an effective way of checking yourself for ticks. 

Protecting Your Pets from Ticks

Keeping your pet safe from ticks can also help prevent ticks from getting into your home. Apply an effective tick prevention product all year round and regularly check for ticks on your pet after time outdoors. 

How to remove a Tick

If you spot a tick on your skin, remove the tick as soon as possible using clean tweezers. Grasp the tick firmly and as close to the skin as possible then pull upwards away from the skin


  • After removing the tick, clean the area and your hands with disinfectant, soap and water. 
  • Dispose of the tick correctly by placing it in a sealed container or wrapping it in tape. 

  • Panic or be alarmed when you come across a tick. Remain calm and seek to remove the tick immediately. 
  • Never crush a tick with your fingers.  

How Is Lyme disease diagnosed? 

Lyme disease is not prevalent in Australia and shares similar symptoms with other diseases so it can be difficult to spot. As Lyme disease is transmitted by a tick, an individual can also experience other tick-borne infections, further complicating a Lyme disease diagnosis. 

Did you know? Certain professions that require extensive time outdoors may pose a greater risk of tick-borne illnesses, including Lyme disease. Some professions with a higher risk of Lyme disease include construction, landscaping, forestry, farming, and park or wildlife management.

Before a Lyme diagnosis can be identified, a doctor may ask questions about an individual’s medical history and recent travels. 

To provide medical professionals with as much information about your health as possible, here’s some information you can prepare: 

  • List your symptoms including when they began and the severity
  • Reference any medication, vitamins and supplements you take
  • Specify any destinations you’ve recently visited. 

If you experience similar symptoms after travelling overseas or visiting an area prone to ticks, a doctor will refer them to an infectious disease specialist to confirm the diagnosis and help manage symptoms.

To identify a Lyme disease diagnosis, a doctor may conduct a blood test or additional tests including the ELISA screening test or Western blot test may be used. 

  • The ELISA method is a preliminary screening test used to measure the level of antibodies in the body that fight Lyme disease.   If the ELISA test results are positive or unclear, a western blot test can confirm the diagnosis. In nearly half of all ELISA cases, a false negative result is returned and it can be important to confirm the diagnosis with a secondary test
  • The Western blot test is more reliable than the ELISA test and is used to confirm a positive ELISA result by looking for reactivity against ten different proteins found on the Lyme bacteria. 

What Treatments Are Available for Lyme Disease? 

Lyme disease is rarely life-threatening and like most illnesses, prevention and early detection are the most effective treatments. While there are no vaccines available as of yet, someone with a Lyme diagnosis can be treated with a range of treatment options including antibiotics. 

For an early diagnosis of Lyme disease, a two-to-three-week course of antibiotics may be administered by a health professional to help ease symptoms and aid in quicker recovery. 

In cases where Lyme disease has spread throughout the body, treatment may involve intravenous antibiotics for up to 28 days, to eliminate the infection. Intravenous antibiotics can have side effects, however, and an individual may require a longer time to recover.

Fast fact:Post-treatment Lyme disease refers to an ongoing set of symptoms after the treatment. Some of these symptoms can include muscle aches and fatigue.

Where Can I Learn More About Lyme Disease? 

There’s limited knowledge of Lyme disease in Australia but here are some resources for more information:

Where you can get help

If you or a child has been bitten by a tick and presents symptoms of Lyme disease, consult your doctor. If you are seriously injured, seriously unwell or have a life-threatening medical emergency, call Triple Zero (000) or go to a hospital emergency department immediately.

You can also seek support by:

  • Contacting your local public health unit on 1300 066 055.
  • Getting in touch with your local GP. Find a list of local health practitioners near via Health Direct.

Learn more about how Homage can help here


Provide the best care to your loved one today!

  1. Statistics. (2022, July 27). Lyme Disease Association of Australia. Retrieved September 16, 2022, from
  2. Alliance, G. L. (n.d.). Lyme Disease Testing – Global Lyme Alliance. Retrieved September 16, 2022, from
About the Writer
Shona Yang
Shona Yang is a freelance writer and content creator based in Sydney. She writes for charities, startups and other organisations and is passionate about human rights and minority voices. In between walking her Beagle and drinking coffee, Shona loves to travel.
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