Lyme disease results from a bacterial infection that certain ticks carry. When an infected tick bites a host for a prolonged period, the bacterium can enter the host. Anyone who finds a tick on their body should carefully remove it with tweezers or a tick removal device.

This article is about how ticks spread Lyme disease. It will explain this process and the ticks that carry the bacterium that cause Lyme disease. It will also discuss whether people can get Lyme disease in other ways, how to help prevent tick bites, and what to do after a tick bite.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person can develop Lyme disease after contracting a bacterial infection from the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi (B. burgdorferi). This is the most common cause of Lyme disease.

The CDC also notes that Borrelia mayonii has caused cases of Lyme disease in North America.

Tick bites are a common cause of this infection. This is because certain tick species can carry disease-causing bacterium. When an infected tick bites a person, the bacterium can enter the host’s bloodstream.

The tick feeding process can last for several days. To transmit the bacteria, a tick typically needs to be attached to a person for 36–48 hours.

Ticks have a life cycle of four life stages: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. People are more likely to contract Lyme disease in the nymph stage when the tick is immature. This is because the tick will be small enough that a person may not notice it.

It is also possible to contract Lyme disease from an adult tick. However, people are more likely to notice an adult tick and remove it before the bacterium causes an infection.

Nymph ticks are most likely to feed during the spring and summer. Adult ticks are more active during cooler seasons.

Can a person contract Lyme disease anywhere in the United States?

The CDC states that it is not possible to contract Lyme disease anywhere in the U.S. Most infections occur in the:

  • northeast and mid-Atlantic, which includes northeastern Virginia to Maine
  • north central states, typically in Wisconsin and Minnesota
  • West Coast, mostly in northern California

Two tick species can carry B. burgdorferi in the U.S.: the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and the Western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus).

Some people refer to the blacklegged tick as a “deer tick.” They live in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and north-central U.S. The Western blacklegged tick lives on the Pacific Coast of the U.S.

Which ticks do not carry Lyme disease?

The U.S. has tick species that do not carry B. burgdorferi. These are:

  • lone star ticks (Amblyomma americanum)
  • American dog ticks (Dermacentor variabilis)
  • brown dog ticks (Rhipicephalus sanguineus)
  • Rocky Mountain wood ticks (Dermacentor andersoni)

Learn about different types of ticks here.

According to the CDC, scientists have discovered very few cases of Lyme disease not originating from tick bites.

  • Person-to-person: It is impossible to contract Lyme disease through person-to-person contact. This includes touching, kissing, or engaging in sexual activity with a person who has Lyme disease.
  • Via childbirth during delivery or breastfeeding: Lyme disease does not transmit to a child via delivery or breastfeeding. However, it is possible for untreated Lyme disease to affect the placenta. In rare cases, this can cause Lyme disease in the placenta.
  • Blood transfusions: There are no known cases of Lyme disease from blood transfusions. However, Lyme disease can survive in donated blood. For this reason, people with Lyme disease should avoid donating blood.
  • From pets: There is no evidence that Lyme disease can spread directly from pets to humans. This includes cats and dogs. However, it is possible for pets to bring infected ticks into the home.
  • Air, food, or water: There is no evidence that Lyme disease can spread through the air, food, or water.
  • Bites from other bugs: There is no evidence that Lyme disease can spread through other bug bites. This includes flies, fleas, and mosquitos.

Before going outdoors, the CDC recommends taking the following precautions:

  • treating clothing and outdoor gear with 0.5% permethrin products
  • using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved insect repellents

While outdoors, people should walk in the center of trails and avoid high grasses and shrubbery.

After returning from the outdoors, people should:

  • check clothing, gear, and pets for ticks
  • shower soon after returning indoors
  • conduct a full-body check for ticks

Although following these steps can be helpful, they cannot fully eliminate the risk of a tick bite.

If an individual finds a tick crawling on their clothing or body, they can use an object to brush it off. However, if the tick has begun feeding, the individual must take special care when removing it.

Certain tools can help with tick removal, although common tweezers are also effective.

An individual should use tweezers to grab the tick as close to their skin as possible. By steadily pulling upward, the tick should come out.

It is important not to jerk or twist the tick, as this can cause its mouth parts to break off, after which they could remain lodged inside the skin.

After removing the tick, the individual should disinfect their hands and the wound.

They should also dispose of the tick without crushing it. To dispose of a tick, people can:

  • flush it down the toilet
  • place it in a sealed container or bag
  • put it in alcohol
  • wrap it tightly in tape

The CDC recommends that an individual contacts a doctor about a tick bite if they develop a rash or fever within several weeks of removing a tick.

According to a 2022 review, symptoms of Lyme disease include:

Learn more about Lyme disease symptoms here.

The following are frequently asked questions about ticks and Lyme disease.

Can a person contract “southern Lyme disease” from lone star ticks?

Lone star ticks do not transmit Lyme disease. However, they can spread tularemia, ehrlichiosis, and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI).

As with Lyme disease, STARI causes a rash that appears similar to a bull’s-eye. The rash typically appears within 7 days of being bitten by a lone star tick.

Unlike Lyme disease, STARI does not appear to have an association with arthritis, chronic symptoms, or neurological problems.

Healthcare professionals do not know which pathogen causes STARI.

How do ticks find their hosts?

Ticks live in grasses and shrubs. They are not very mobile, and for this reason, they find their hosts by chance.

The tick must wait for potential hosts to brush past their location. If this occurs, the tick will attempt to climb onto them.

To climb onto their host, ticks use a technique that scientists call “questing.” When questing, the tick attaches itself to the tips of grasses or shrubs with its hind legs. It keeps its front legs outstretched. This readies it for grabbing onto potential hosts.

How do ticks attach to their hosts?

Once the tick climbs onto its host, it finds a suitable feeding place. After doing so, the tick will bite into a person’s skin. This cuts the skin’s surface, which allows the tick to insert its feeding tube. The feeding tube draws blood from the person.

Some ticks secrete a substance that helps them stick to their hosts. Others have barbs on their feeding tube, which perform the same function.

People can develop Lyme disease after being bitten by an infected tick. The most common bacterium that causes Lyme disease is called Borrelia burgdorferi.

To contract the bacterium, a tick typically has to feed on a host for 36–48 hours.

Two ticks in the U.S. can transmit Lyme disease: the blacklegged tick and the Western blacklegged tick.

Although not every infected tick will spread the infection through its bite, it is important for people to take precautions against Lyme disease.

People can help prevent contracting the bacterium by treating their clothes with an effective insect repellent and checking their clothes and body for ticks after returning home.