What Is Early Disseminated Lyme Disease?

Early disseminated Lyme disease is the phase of Lyme disease in which the bacteria that cause this condition have spread throughout your body. This stage can occur days, weeks, or even months after an infected tick bites you. Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that’s caused by a bite from a blacklegged tick. Early disseminated Lyme disease is associated with the second stage of the disease. There are three stages of Lyme disease:

  • Stage 1 is localized Lyme disease. This occurs within several days of a tick bite and may cause redness at the site of the tick bite along with fever, chills, muscle aches, and skin irritation.
  • Stage 2 is early disseminated Lyme disease. This occurs within weeks of a tick bite. The untreated infection begins spreading to other parts of the body, producing a variety of new symptoms.
  • Stage 3 is late disseminated Lyme disease. This occurs months to years after an initial tick bite, when bacteria have spread to the rest of the body. Many people in this stage of the disease experience cycles of arthritis and joint pain along with neurological symptoms such as shooting pain, numbness in the extremities, and problems with short-term memory.

The onset of early disseminated Lyme disease can begin days, weeks, or even months after being bitten by an infected tick. The symptoms reflect the fact that the infection has begun to spread from the site of the tick bite to other parts of the body.

At this stage, the infection causes specific symptoms that may be intermittent. They are:

  • erythema migrans, which is a bull’s eye rash that occurs in areas other than the bite site
  • Bell’s palsy, which is paralysis or weakness of muscles on one or both sides of the face
  • meningitis, which is inflammation of the spinal cord
  • neck stiffness, severe headaches, or fever from meningitis
  • severe muscle pain or numbness in the arms or legs
  • pain or swelling in the knees, shoulders, elbows, and other large joints
  • heart complications, including palpitations and dizziness

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection. It’s caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. You can become infected when a tick that carries the bacteria bites you. Typically, blacklegged ticks and deer ticks spread the disease. These ticks collect the bacteria when they bite diseased mice or deer.

You can become infected when these tiny ticks attach themselves to various parts of your body. They’re about the size of a poppy seed and favor hidden areas such as the groin, armpits, and scalp. Often, they can remain undetected in these spots.

Most people who develop Lyme disease report that they never saw a tick on their body. The tick transmits bacteria after being attached for about 36 to 48 hours.

Early disseminated Lyme disease is the second stage of the infection. It occurs within a few weeks of a tick bite, after the initial infection goes untreated.

You’re at risk for early disseminated Lyme disease if you’ve been bitten by an infected tick and remain untreated during the early stage of Lyme disease.

You’re at an increased risk of contracting Lyme disease if you live in one of the areas where most Lyme disease infections are reported. They are:

  • any of the northeastern states from Maine to Virginia
  • the north-central states, with the highest incidence in Wisconsin and Minnesota
  • the west coast, primarily northern California

Certain situations also can increase your risk of coming into contact with an infected tick:

  • gardening, hunting, hiking, or doing other outside activities in areas where Lyme disease is a potential threat
  • walking or hiking in high grass or wooded areas
  • having pets that may carry ticks into your home

In order to diagnose Lyme disease, your doctor will order a blood test that checks for titers, or the level of antibodies to the bacteria that cause the disease. The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) is the most common test for Lyme disease. The Western blot test, another antibody test, can be used to confirm the ELISA results. These tests may be done simultaneously.

The antibodies to B. burgdorferi can take from two to six weeks after infection to show up in your blood. As a result, people tested within the first few weeks of infection may test negative for Lyme disease. In this case, your doctor may choose to monitor your symptoms and test again at a later date to confirm diagnosis.

If you’re in an area where Lyme disease is common, your doctor may be able to diagnose Lyme disease in stage 1 based on your symptoms and their clinical experience.

If your doctor suspects you have early disseminated Lyme disease and the infection has spread throughout your body, testing of potentially affected areas may be necessary. These tests may include:

  • an electrocardiogram or echocardiogram to examine your heart function
  • a spinal tap to look at your cerebrospinal fluid
  • an MRI of the brain to look for signs of neurological conditions

If you don’t get treatment at the early disseminated stage, the complications of Lyme disease can include damage to your joints, heart, and nervous system. However, if Lyme disease is diagnosed at this stage, the symptoms still can be treated successfully.

If the disease progresses from the early disseminated stage to the late disseminated stage, or stage 3, without treatment, it can lead to long-term complications. These may include:

  • Lyme arthritis, which causes inflammation of the joints
  • heart rhythm irregularities
  • brain and nervous system damage
  • decreased short-term memory
  • difficulty concentrating
  • pain
  • numbness
  • sleep disorders
  • vision deterioration

When Lyme disease is diagnosed at the early localized stage or early disseminated stage, the standard treatment is a 14- to 21-day course of oral antibiotics. Doxycycline, amoxicillin, and cefuroxime are the most common medications used. Other antibiotics or intravenous treatment may be necessary depending on your condition and additional symptoms.

You can expect a rapid and complete recovery if you receive antibiotics in one of the early stages of Lyme disease.

If you’re diagnosed and treated with antibiotics at this stage, you can expect to be cured of Lyme disease. Without treatment, complications can occur, but they remain treatable.

In rare cases, you may experience a continuation of Lyme disease symptoms after antibiotic treatment. This is called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, or PTLDS. Some people who were treated for Lyme disease report muscle and joint pain, sleep issues, or fatigue after their treatments were finished. Although the cause for this is unknown, researchers believe it may be due to an autoimmune response in which your immune system attacks healthy tissues or it may be linked to an ongoing infection with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

Tips to Avoid Contracting Lyme Disease

By taking specific precautions, you can prevent coming in direct contact with infected ticks. These practices can reduce your likelihood of contracting Lyme disease and having it progress to the early disseminated stage:

  • Use insect repellant on your clothing and all exposed skin when walking in wooded or grassy areas where ticks thrive.
  • Walk in the center of trails to avoid high grass when hiking.
  • After walking or hiking, change your clothes and perform a thorough check for ticks, focusing on the groin, scalp, and armpits.
  • Check your pets for ticks.
  • Treat clothing and footwear with permethrin, which is an insect repellant that remains active through several washings.

Contact your doctor if a tick bites you. You should be observed for 30 days for signs of Lyme disease.

Tips to Prevent Lyme Disease from Progressing

Learn the signs of early Lyme disease so that you can seek treatment promptly if you’re infected. If you get timely treatment, you can avoid the potential complications of early disseminated Lyme disease and later stages.

The symptoms of early Lyme disease can occur from three to 30 days after an infected tick bites you. Look for:

  • a red, expanding bull’s-eye rash at the site of the tick bite
  • fatigue
  • chills
  • a general feeling of illness
  • itching all over your body
  • a headache
  • feeling dizzy
  • feeling faint
  • muscle pain
  • joint pain
  • neck stiffness
  • swollen lymph nodes