Lyme Disease


Life cycle of the Ixodes scapularis In wither it feeds one (deer is preferred host. Eggs are deposited and adults die within 3 weeks. In the spring the egg becomes a larvae and feeds once, 2 days (mouse is preferred host). The larva becomes a nymph.
This image shows the 2-year life cycle of the black-legged tick, the biological vector of Lyme disease. (credit “mouse”: modification of work by George Shuklin)

OpenStax Microbiology

Lyme disease is caused by the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi that is transmitted by the bite of a hard-bodied, black-legged Ixodes tick. I. scapularis is the biological vector transmitting B. burgdorferi in the eastern and north-central US and I. pacificus  transmits B. burgdorferi in the western US. Different species of Ixodes ticks are responsible for B. burgdorferi transmission in Asia and Europe. In the US, Lyme disease is the most commonly reported vectorborne illness. In 2014, it was the fifth most common Nationally Notifiable disease.

Ixodes ticks have complex life cycles and deer, mice, and even birds can act as reservoirs. Over 2 years, the ticks pass through four developmental stages and require a blood meal from a host at each stage. In the spring, tick eggs hatch into six-legged larvae. These larvae do not carry B. burgdorferi initially. They may acquire the spirochete when they take their first blood meal (typically from a mouse). The larvae then overwinter and molt into eight-legged nymphs in the following spring. Nymphs take blood meals primarily from small rodents, but may also feed on humans, burrowing into the skin. The feeding period can last several days to a week, and it typically takes 24 hours for an infected nymph to transmit enough B. burgdorferi to cause infection in a human host. Nymphs ultimately mature into male and female adult ticks, which tend to feed on larger animals like deer or, occasionally, humans. The adults then mate and produce eggs to continue the cycle.

The symptoms of Lyme disease follow three stages: early localized, early disseminated, and late stage. During the early-localized stage, approximately 70%–80% of cases may be characterized by a bull’s-eye rash, called erythema migrans, at the site of the initial tick bite. The rash forms 3 to 30 days after the tick bite (7 days is the average) and may also be warm to the touch. This diagnostic sign is often overlooked if the tick bite occurs on the scalp or another less visible location. Other early symptoms include flu-like symptoms such as malaise, headache, fever, and muscle stiffness. If the patient goes untreated, the second early-disseminated stage of the disease occurs days to weeks later. The symptoms at this stage may include severe headache, neck stiffness, facial paralysis, arthritis, and carditis. The late-stage manifestations of the disease may occur years after exposure. Chronic inflammation causes damage that can eventually cause severe arthritis, meningitis, encephalitis, and altered mental states. The disease may be fatal if untreated.

A presumptive diagnosis of Lyme disease can be made based solely on the presence of a bull’s-eye rash at the site of infection, if it is present, in addition to other associated symptoms. In addition, indirect immunofluorescent antibody (IFA) labeling can be used to visualize bacteria from blood or skin biopsy specimens. Serological tests like ELISA can also be used to detect serum antibodies produced in response to infection. During the early stage of infection (about 30 days), antibacterial drugs such as amoxicillin and doxycycline are effective. In the later stages, penicillin G, chloramphenicol, or ceftriaxone can be given intravenously.

a) a rash with a red ring that contains a red spot in the center. B) A micrograph of spiral shaped cells.
(a) A characteristic bull’s eye rash of Lyme disease forms at the site of a tick bite. (b) A darkfield micrograph shows Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease. (credit a: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit b: modification of work by American Society for Microbiology)


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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