Lyme disease is a disease caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. It’s passed to humans through the bite of a black-legged tick, also known as a deer tick. The disease is treatable and doesn’t cause long-term damage, as long as it’s treated early. If you live in an area where these ticks are common and you spend time outside, you have an increased risk of Lyme.

So what happens if you get Lyme disease when you’re pregnant? Is the baby at risk?

Generally speaking, your baby should be safe, as long as you’re diagnosed and treated.

Read on to find out more about how to prevent Lyme disease and what to do if you get it during pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?

The first sign of Lyme disease may be a rash that appears from three to 30 days after the tick bite, at the bite site. This rash is different from a normal red bump that looks like a bug bite: It may be red around the outside and look lighter in the middle, like a bullseye. If you have a bullseye-type (or any) rash, get checked by your doctor.

Not everyone who gets Lyme disease gets a rash. You might also experience symptoms similar to the flu, including:

  • fever
  • chills
  • body aches
  • feeling tired
  • headaches

These can happen with or without the rash.

“Since the symptoms of Lyme disease can mimic the flu or other viral diseases, it can be tricky to diagnose. Whether or not a woman with Lyme disease can transmit this tickborne bacteria to her unborn child hasn’t been proven,” says Dr. Sherry Ross, M.D., OB-GYN, and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

If Lyme disease goes untreated for a longer period, these are the additional symptoms:

  • joint pain and swelling, similar to arthritis, that comes and goes and moves between joints
  • muscle weakness
  • Bell’s palsy, weakness or paralysis of the facial nerve
  • meningitis, inflammation of the membranes covering your brain and spinal cord
  • feeling severely weak or tired
  • irregular heartbeat
  • liver inflammation
  • memory problems
  • other skin rashes
  • nerve pain

Treatment of Lyme disease during pregnancy

Before starting any treatment, make sure your doctor knows you’re pregnant or might be pregnant. Fortunately, one of the standard antibiotic treatments for Lyme disease is safe during pregnancy. The antibiotic amoxicillin is usually taken three times a day for two to three weeks. If you’re allergic to amoxicillin, your doctor might prescribe cefuroxime, a different antibiotic, taken twice daily instead. Another antibiotic that is used to treat Lyme disease, doxycycline, is not prescribed to pregnant women. Based on the symptoms you describe, your doctor may opt to give you the antibiotic before ordering lab tests, so you can start treatment as quickly as possible. You may still have lab work, even though you started treatment.

Prevention of Lyme disease during pregnancy

The best way to avoid getting Lyme disease is to prevent tick bites. People who live in the Northeast and Midwest are at a higher risk because there are more wooded areas in those regions. This is where deer ticks are common.

Here are some tips for preventing Lyme disease:

  • You can help prevent tick bites by avoiding areas where they live, like tall grass and heavy woods.
  • If you are in these places, wear long sleeves and long pants. It’s easier for ticks to attach to your skin when it’s exposed.
  • Use insect repellent or treated clothing containing the insect repellent, DEET.
  • After being outside, remove your clothing to check your body for ticks. Ask someone to help you check your head and back. Also change your clothes.

If you notice a tick on your body, it’s important to remove it right away. The chance of Lyme disease increases the longer the tick is attached to you. Removing a tick within 48 hours significantly lowers your risk of Lyme disease.

Here’s how to remove a tick, step by step:

  1. Using a pair of fine-tipped tweezers, grab the tick as close to the skin as you can.
  2. Pull straight up without twisting the tweezers or squeezing too hard. This can cause part of the tick to stay in your skin.
  3. Once the tick is out, clean your skin thoroughly with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
  4. Get rid of the live tick by flushing it down the toilet, putting it in rubbing alcohol, or sealing it in a bag to throw in the trash.

Bottom line

Whether you’re pregnant or not, try to avoid getting tick bites. If you do, remove the tick as soon as possible. If you have any symptoms, you should be checked. If you have any doubts, call your doctor.