Lyme borreliosis

Robert B Nadelman, Gary P Wormser

Lancet 1998; 352: 557-65

Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, New York Medical College, and the Lyme Disease Diagnostic Center, Westchester Medical Center, Valhalla, NY, USA (R B Nadelman MD, G P Wormser MD)

Correspondence to: Dr Robert B Nadelman, Westchester Medical Center, Division of Infectious Diseases, Macy Pavilion 209SE, Valhalla, NY 10595, USA

Clinical manifestations
Laboratory detection
Research directions
Further reading

Lyme borreliosis (Lyme disease) is often said to be associated with "protean" manifestations, a reference to the ancient god Proteus, who could assume many forms and thus elude his pursuers. This legendary quality has clouded our understanding of Lyme borreliosis by giving Borrelia burgdorferi infection a mythical aura of its own. This review shows that this illness, while incompletely understood, is far more palpable than Proteus and is (in most cases) much more readily subdued. The clinical presentations of Lyme borreliosis do differ in North America and Eurasia, possibly due to the differing pathogenicity of distinct genospecies of Borrelia burgdorferi. The most common manifestation, however, in both continents is erythema migrans. Diagnosis should rest on a careful history and objective clinical findings, supported by appropriately chosen laboratory tests. Reports of coinfection with other tick-borne diseases should prompt a fresh look at Lyme borreliosis. Assertions about "protean manifestations" of B burgdorferi infection should be reappraised. Advances in laboratory techniques are welcome but culture remains the gold standard for the diagnosis--and no laboratory test result should substitute for careful clinical observation and critical analysis.

"And he [Proteus] will try you by taking the form of all creatures that come forth and move on the eath, he will be water and magical fire."

"First he turned into a great bearded lion, and then to a serpent, then to a leopard, then to a great bore, and he turned into fluid water..."

The Odyssey of Homer

(Transl R Lattimore New York: Harper & Row, 1975: iv, 417-18, 456-58)


Lyme borreliosis is an infection caused by the spirochaete Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato (B burgdorferi) which is transmitted by the usually asymptomatic bite of certain ticks of the genus Ixodes (figure 1). Ticks acquire infection in a complex tick-vertebrate cycle. The white-footed mouse is the most important reservoir for B burgdorferi (ie, source of infection for the tick) in North America, but in Europe a variety of small mammals (including the dormouse and vole) and some birds are important, possibly reflecting the more varied and complex ecology of the Ixodes ticks in Eurasia. In the western USA low B burgdorferi tick infection rates have been attributed to the fact that Ixodes ticks in that location commonly feed on lizards, which are not thought to be competent reservoirs for B burgdorferi. White-tailed deer, an important host for adult Ixodes ticks, also do not serve as reservoirs for B burgdorferi.1


Figure 1: I scapularis, the major North American tick vector for Lyme borreliosis

Other important vectors in Eurasia (I ricinus, I persulcatus) and North America (I pacificus) have a very similar appearance. Upper: L to R=nymphal I scapularis, poppy seed, adult female I scapularis, sesame seed; millimetre scale also shown. Hand lens may help in identification.

Lower: unfed and fed (for 48 h) nymphal I scapularis.

Lyme borreliosis occurs in northeastern, mid-Atlantic, north-central, and far western regions of the United States, with limited foci in Canada (primarily one section of eastern Ontario), and in much of Europe and northern Asia (panel 1). Migrating birds may have a role in the spread of ticks and B burgdorferi to new locations. Despite reports of Lyme borreliosis-like illnesses in Australia, Africa, South America, and the southern USA, B burgdorferi has not been isolated from patients there and these regions should not be considered endemic for this infection.

Panel 1: Vectors for Lyme borreliosis

Tick species*

Geographical location

Tick stage


important for




of infection

I scapularis

Northeastern, mid-Atlantic,


(black-legged tick)(dagger)

and north-central USA(ddouble agger)


I ricinus

Western, central, eastern,


(sheep tick)§

and southern Europe


I persulcatus||

Eastern Europe, Russia,



China, Japan, Korea


I pacificus(dagger)

Far western USA and Canada


*Infection rates for each species and stage may vary considerably from place to place.

(dagger)I scapularis in the southern USA and I pacificus in the western USA have low B burgdorferi infection rates (<3%); infection rates in I scapularis in locations endemic for Lyme borreliosis range up to 65% for the adult and 30% for the nymphal stage.2 (ddouble agger)Established I scapularis populations have been well documented in at least one location (Long Point) in Ontario, Canada; isolated reports of I scapularis ticks have come from other Canadian provinces (D Fish, personal communication). §Infection rates for nymphal

I ricinus stage, median 12% (range 0-66%);3 infection rates for adult I ricinus stage, median 16% (range 4-52%).3 ||Estimates for infection rates for adult stage I persulcatus range up to 60%.3

Lyme borreliosis occurs with similar frequencies in males and females in the USA, and affects people of all ages. A bimodal age of distribution of US cases has been described with highest rates in children aged 5-9 years old and in adults over 30.

Clinical manifestations

Although a wide variety of disease manifestations has been ascribed to Lyme borreliosis, many have been based on case-reports, uncontrolled series of patients, or indirect (serological) evidence rather than on infection confirmed microbiologically (ie, isolation of B burgdorferi in culture). Early descriptions failed to consider the possibility of coinfection with other tick-borne pathogens, some of which were not recognised when the reports were written.

Although manifestations of Lyme borreliosis have been staged,4 the implications of this classification for pathogenesis, prognosis, or treatment, remain unclear. The surveillance definition of Lyme borreliosis developed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for epidemiological purposes,5 though not intended to serve as a strict practice guideline, does seem to be useful clinically; and a European guideline is clinically helpful too.6 Well-recognised Lyme borreliosis features are summarised in panel 2. The wider variety of genospecies of B burgdorferi in Eurasia may account for the different manifestations of Lyme borreliosis in Eurasia and North America (panels 3 and 4).

Panel 2: Lyme borreliosis manifestations*(dagger)


Erythema migrans9-12(ddouble agger)


Expanding (over days or weeks) erythematous patch (5 cm in diameter). Systemic complaints (including fever) and secondary EM lesions may occur.


Does not include lesions ocurring within hours of a tick bite (hypersensitivity reactions) or lesions which resolve without antibiotics within


48 h.§

Borrelial lymphocytoma6,13(ddouble agger)


Painless bluish-red nodule or plaque usually on ear lobe, nipple, or scrotum. B-lymphocytic infiltrate present on biopsy.

Acrodermatitis chronica atrophicans6(ddouble agger)


Long-standing red or bluish-red discolouration, usually on extensor surface of extremities, sometimes with dough-like swelling, ultimately becoming atrophic (and sometimes associated with peripheral neuropathy, adjacent periarticular nodules, and/or joint subluxation beneath lesions).

Extracutaneous (when no alternative explanation is found):



Acute onset of high grade (2° or 3°) atrioventricular conduction defects that resolve in days to weeks and may be associated with myopericarditis.


Does not include palpitations, bradycardia, bundle-branch block, or myocarditis alone without other objective manifestations of Lyme borreliosis.

Nervous system15-17


Lymphocytic meningitis,(ddouble agger) cranial neuritis (particularly peripheral facial nerve palsy), radiculoneuropathy, and rarely encephalomyelitis (the last must be confirmed by demonstration of specific intrathecal antibody poduction to B burgdorferi)||


Does not include headache, fatigue, paraesthesia, or stiff neck without other objective manifestations of Lyme borreliosis.

Musculoskeletal system9,19-21


Recurrent brief attacks (weeks or months) of objective joint swelling in one or a few joints sometimes followed by chronic arthritis, typically in one or both knees.


Does not include chronic progressive arthritis not preceded by brief attacks, chronic symmetrical polyarthritis, or arthralgia, myalgia, or fibromyalgia without other objective manifestations of Lyme borreliosis.

*Modified from CDC5 and EUCALB6 recommendations. (dagger)Laboratory evidence required for all manifestations except for erythema migrans (EM) in an area endemic for B burgdorferi infection. Laboratory evidence should be isolation of B burgdorferi from a clinical specimen, specific genetic sequences by PCR in synovial fluid or CSF, or antibodies to B burgdorferi in serum on a twostep test.7,8 (An endemic area is defined as wooded, brushy, or grassy locations in a county [or equivalent district] in which at least two confirmed human cases of Lyme borreliosis have been previously acquired, or in which established populations of a known tick vector are infected with B burgdorferi.) (ddouble agger)Multiple patients with culture-confirmation of B burgdorferi infection. §Untreated EM resolved spontaneously in 3-4 weeks (mean) in US patients,4 and in 10 weeks (median) in Swedish patients.10 ||Requires simultaneous serum and CSF to determine whether the level of specific antibody to B burgdorferi in CSF is greater than that in serum.8,15,-18

Erythema migrans

Erythema migrans (EM) is the clinical hallmark of Lyme borreliosis9-12 and it is recognised in about 90% of patients with objective evidence of B burgdorferi infection.22,24 The erythema typically begins as a red macule or papule at the site of a tick bite 7-10 days earlier. The rash expands over days to weeks, presumably as the spirochaetes spread centrifugally through the skin (figure 2). Central clearing, often thought of as a sine qua non of EM, may or may not be present and is largely a function of long duration of the rash before treatment.10-12 Secondary cutaneous lesions, with no tick bite site (punctum) may develop after haematogenous spread of spirochaetes. Local symptoms of pruritus, tenderness, and paraesthesia are hardly noticeable in primary lesions11,12 and are absent in secondary lesions. EM must be distinguished from local tick bite reactions, tinea, insect and spider bites, bacterial cellulitis, and plant dermatitis.


Figure 2: Erythema migrans lesion without central clearing

B burgdorferi was recovered on biopsy culture

Systemic complaints in patients with EM are more common in the USA than in Europe (panel 3), perhaps as a result of illness caused by a more virulent genospecies (B burgdorferi sensu stricto rather than B afzelii)12 or more frequent coinfection.24,25 The most frequent associated symptoms in one US report of 79 culture-confirmed patients included fatigue (54%), myalgia (44%), arthralgia (44%), headache (42%), fever and/or chills (39%), and stiff neck (35%).11 Prominent respiratory and/or gastrointestinal complaints are so rare that their presence should suggest an alternative diagnosis or coinfection. The most common objective physical findings are regional lymphadenopathy (23%) and fever (16%).11 Occasional cases of febrile virus-like illness without EM have been attributed to Lyme borreliosis. Some of these patients may have presented before the erythema developed or after the spontaneous resolution of an asymptomatic unrecognised EM, or had a different illness associated with a false-positive Lyme borreliosis serology (eg, granulocytic ehrlichiosis).25 Certainty of Lyme borreliosis in such individuals is lower.

Panel 3: Lyme borreliosis in North America and Eurasia


North America



I scapularis or I pacificus

I ricinus or I persulcatus


B burgdorferi ss*

B burgdorferi ss* (in Europe), B afzelii, or B garinii

Erythema migrans

Recollection of tick bite

Infrequent (<30%)2,11,12,22

Common (64%)12

Duration of rash at presentation

Short (median 4 days)11,12

Long (median 14 days12 to 5-6 weeks10

Central clearing

Uncommon (<35%)11,12

Common6,10 (>65%)12

Systemic symptoms

Common (up to 80%)11,12,22

Uncommon (often <35%)10,12

Multiple lesions (dagger)



Seronegativity at presentation

Common (50%)8,11,12

Very common (up to 80%)10,12


Arthritis in untreated patients with EM

Common (51%)21


Borrelial lymphocytoma


Well documented

Acrodermatitis chronica atrophicans


Well documented

*ss=sensu stricto

(dagger)Although it has been thought that multiple EM lesions are more common in North America, a recent comparison study found a similar incidence of multiple EM lesions in culture-confirmed patients in Ljubljana, Slovenia and Westchester County, NY12

Although the EM rash is characteristic of early Lyme borreliosis, it should not be considered pathognomonic. For example, extensive investigation of rashes that resembled EM in the southern USA (associated with Amblyomma americanum rather than I scapularis tick bites) found neither microbiological nor serological evidence of B burgdorferi infection.26 A new presumptive species, B lonestarii sp nov, has been recognised in A americanum ticks but an association with this Lyme borreliosis-like illness has not been established.

Panel 4: Genospecies of B burgdorferi sl causing Lyme borreliosis*




B burgdorferi ss

North America,

Only genospecies known to



cause clinical disease in North




B afzelii


Associated with a milder


systemic illness accompanying


EM compared with B burgdorferi


ss;12 principal cause of


acrodermatitis chronica


atrophicans23 and a cause of


borrelial lymphocytoma.13

B garinii



associated with


neurological disease;23 also a


cause of EM23 and borrelial





Isolated from borrelial


lymphocytoma (one report);13


has been isolated from North


American ticks but not



sI=sensu lato; ss=sensu srticto;

*Certain other genospecies as well as B japonica, B andersonii, and B miyamotoi sp nov have been isolated from tick vectors but not man. An association between B lonestari sp nov (identified in A americanum ticks) and a Lyme disease-like illness in certain areas of the southern USA has not been proven.


Cardiac disease due to B burgdorferi typically develops weeks to months after infection and is usually manifested by a fluctuating degree of atrioventricular block which may cause the patient to complain of dizziness, palpitations, dyspnoea, chest pain, or syncope.4,14 Pericarditis with effusion is less common. Carditis was reported in 8% of US patients before the widespread use of antibiotics for EM.4 In more recent series the incidence (as measured by ECG confirmed heart block) has been lower, in both the USA (<1%)22,27 and in Europe (<4%)14 Heart block is typically at or above the atrioventricular node4,14 but can affect the entire cardiac conduction system. Myocardial biopsy is not often done in patients with acute carditis but in anecdotal cases spirochaete-like forms have been associated with a local inflammatory response.14 B burgdorferi has been recovered in culture from the myocardium of several European patients with congestive heart failure, including two with acute myocarditis and one with chronic cardiomyopathy.28 European but not US investigators have found evidence for an association between Lyme borreliosis and dilated cardiomyopathy based upon serological data with anecdotal responses to antibiotics.29

Neurological disease

Early reports indicated that 15-20% of untreated US patients with Lyme borreliosis develop neurological disease (neuroborreliosis) (panel 5). However, 1990-95 data from the State of Connecticut have consistently indicated that neurological Lyme borreliosis accounts for no more than 10% of cases.22,27 In Europe, the frequency may be higher but selection bias could be partly responsible for the difference. Another factor may be the greater neurotropism of B garinii, which has not been isolated in North America.12,13,23

Panel 5: Neurological manifestations of Lyme borreliosis


Clinical features

Diagnostic features

Cranial neuropathy

Peripheral 7th nerve palsy (may be bilateral) most

Antibody usually detectable in serum; CSF may show

(stage II/weeks*)

common neurological manifestations in N Am; EM may be

lymphocytic pleocytosis


present too; 7th nerve palsy may develop during the


first week of treatment for EM, which does not


constitute treatment failure.



Meningismus not prominent; headache may be

CSF culture positive in 10% and PCR positive in <50%;

(stage II/weeks)

intermittent; may be associated with cranial neuritis

antibody detectable in serum; intrathecal antibody


and with radiculopathy (Garin-Boujadoux-Bannwarth

production(dagger) and lymphocytic pleocytosis both present in


syndrome); EM may be present too.



Acute onset of severe localised radicular pain and/or

Antibody detectable in serum; electrophysiological

(stage II/weeks)

motor weakness with or without sensory loss; sensory

studies consistent with axonal degeneration in distal


complaints and neurological deficits may be multifocal

nerves as well as nerve roots; CSF pleocytosis in almost


and asymmetrical; may occur as Garin-Boujadoux-

all patients,16 and intrathecal antibody


Bannwarth syndrome (see above); more common in Europe

production(dagger) in >80%


than N Am.


Peripheral neuropathy

Paraesthesias and, less commonly, radicular pain; sensory

Antibody in serum; electrophysiological studies

(chronic axonal

deficits unusual on clinical examination and motor

consistent with mild axonal neuropathy;16 CSF usually

neuropathy) (stage III/

strength and deep tendon reflexes preserved; usually not

normal;16 intrathecal antibody production(dagger) usually

months to years)

accompanied by meningitis or cranial neuritis.

absent; sural nerve biopsy shows distal axonal loss and


perivascular infiltrate but without immune complexes or


complement deposition. B burgdorferi not demonstrated


in nerve tissue.(ddouble agger)


Typically subacute or chronic; subtle memory and

Antibody detectable in serum; may be associated with

(stage III/months to

cognitive dysfunction; physical examination usually normal;

raised CSF protein or intrathecal antibody production,(dagger)


may be associated with peripheral neuropathy; may be

and, in a minority of cases, CSF pleocytosis;16 role for


secondary to indirect effects of neuromodulators rather

formal neurocognitive testing needs confirmation.


than direct infection of central nervous system.17



Unifocal or multifocal inflammatory disease which is

Detectable serum and intrathecal antibody production;(dagger)

(stage III/months to

slowly progressive and involves white-matter more than

may be associated with CSF pleocytosis, increased


grey-matter;17 rare.17

protein, or positive PCR. MRI, though non-specific, may


suggest white-matter disease.

*Time from EM to onset of neurological symptoms. (dagger)Requires simultaneous serum and CSF samples to determine whether level of specific antibody to B burgdorferi in CSF is greater than that in serum.8,15-18 (ddouble agger)Both acute (radiculoneuritis) and chronic forms of Lyme neuropathy probably represent forms of mononeuritis multiplex.17

Antibiotics appear to hasten the resolution of meningitis but most studies are uncontrolled. The rate of resolution of motor dysfunction, which is fully reversible in the vast majority of cases, is not enhanced by antimicrobial therapy.30 Symptoms of encephalopathy and peripheral neuropathy improve or do not progress after treatment with intravenous antibiotics.16

B burgdorferi infection is not the cause of multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Alzheimer's disease. Case-reports of psychiatric illness in patients who are B burgdorferi seropositive do not provide compelling evidence of causation, and a prospective serosurvey on patients admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Westchester County, NY, found no evidence of Lyme borreliosis in 517 patients over 16 months.31

Rheumatological disease

Lyme arthritis is often regarded as primarily a North American manifestation,4,12 but selection bias may explain this. The clinical features of Lyme arthritis are fundamentally similar in Europe and North America.4

In a study of 55 untreated patients with erythema migrans diagnosed in Connecticut between 1977 and 1979, followed up for a mean duration of 6 years, objective arthritis developed in more than half of the patients. The arthritis occurred within 1 year for 90% (mean time 6 months, range 4 days to 2 years, from the onset of EM).21 In the absence of antibiotic treatment, intermittent attacks of migratory monoarthritis or asymmetric oligoarthritis occur, lasting a mean of 3 months (range 3 days to 11·5 months).21 The knee is affected at some point in almost all patients, but other large and (less often) small joints may be affected. Temporomandibular joint involvement occurred in 11 (39%) of 28 patients with arthritis in one series. Although large effusions may occur, joint pain and erythema are often minimal. Baker's cysts may develop. Synovial fluid analysis typically reveals a modestly elevated protein and white cell count (median 24 250 white cells/µL; range 2100-72 250) with a polymorphonuclear predominance9 and a normal glucose level. Synovitis lasting 1 year or more may ensue for a minority of US patients, sometimes associated with joint destruction.4,9,19-21 Although B burgdorferi DNA can be detected by PCR in the synovial fluid of up to 85% of untreated patients with Lyme arthritis, B burgdorferi has rarely been successfully cultured from joint fluid.20 In patients who receive antibiotics, the presence of B burgdorferi can no longer be detected by PCR in repeat synovial fluid examinations.20

Acrodermatitis chronica atrophicans

Acrodermatitis chronica atrophicans develops insidiously on a distal extremity, characterised by a swollen bluish-red appearing skin lesion which ultimately atrophies.4,6 One third of patients have an associated (usually sensory) polyneuropathy. B burgdorferi has been recovered from skin biopsy specimens of acrodermatitis chronica atrophicans lesions of more than 10 years' duration.4 Since the usual causative agent, B afzelli, does not occur in the US, acrodermatitis chronica is essentially a European disease.


Borrelial lymphocytoma, principally caused by B afzelli and B garinii,13 is a tumour-like nodule which typically appears (in European patients) on the pinna of the earlobe or on the nipple or areola of the breast.6 Lesions resolve spontaneously but disappear within a few weeks after antibiotics.

Direct involvement of the eye (eg, uveitis, keratitis, vitritis, and optic neuritis) has been attributed to B burgdorferi infection.4 However, since ophthalmological disorders have hardly ever been associated with the isolation of B burgdorferi in culture, the pathogenesis in these cases is uncertain. Conjunctivitis, originally described in 11% of patients with EM, was rare (<5%) in recent studies of culture-positive patients.11,12

Children account for a disproportionate number of Lyme borreliosis cases, presumably because of increased exposure and decreased attention to prevention. Manifestations are similar to those in adults (panel 6).22

Panel 6: Clinical features of Lyme borreliosis in children at time of diagnosis*



EM (solitary/multiple lesions)

89% (66%/23%)



Facial nerve palsy






*Prospective study of 201 consecutive children (median age 7 years; range 1-21) with Lyme borreliosis seen in Connecticut. At follow-up a mean of 2 years after antibiotic treatment, no child had persistent disease. Adapted from ref 22.

Case reports have suggested that adverse outcomes may be associated with pregnancies complicated by maternal Lyme borreliosis.4 However, a recent prospective report from Slovenia described unremarkable outcomes in 51/58 (88%) consecutive pregnant women who had EM and were treated with oral or intravenous penicillin or intravenous ceftriaxone. Adverse events in six pregnancies (five preterm births [one with atrial and ventricular septal defects], one missed abortion, and one with ureteral stenosis at age 7 months) could not clearly be attributed to B burgdorferi infection.32 The risk of transplacental transmission of B burgdorferi is probably minimal when appropriate antibiotics (panel 7) are given to pregnant women with Lyme borreliosis. There are no published data to support a congenital Lyme borreliosis syndrome.

Panel 7: Treatment of Lyme borreliosis*(dagger)









Amoxicillin, cefuroxime axetil, doxycycline probably equally effective; failure rate <5%;


no evidence that intravenous ceftriaxone is advantageous in "disseminated" early disease.



Covers human granulocyte ehrlichiosis (HGE); risk of photosensitivity.



Not active against HGE.

Cefuroxime axetil


Useful when cellulitis cannot be distinguished from EM (as is co-amoxiclav); alternative


for some penicillin allergic patients; most expensive; not active against HGE.

Phenoxymethylpenicillin (penicillin V)


Not active against HGE.



Covers HGE; risk of photosensitivity.



2nd line choice, more failures than with amoxicillin;34 not active against HGE.

Borrelial lymphocytoma

First-line oral EM regimen(dagger)



Acrodermatitis chronica atrophicans


Evaluation for neuropathy prudent; intravenous antibiotics (see below) may be


effective, but advantages over oral therapy not established.

First-line oral EM regimen(dagger)




First-line oral EM regimen(dagger)


For 1° heart block.



For advanced (2° or 3°) heart block; no proof that intravenous more effective than oral.

Facial nerve palsy


No clinical trials; treatment does not shorten course;30 perform lumbar puncture if


clinical signs of meningitis.

First-line oral EM regimen(dagger)










Penicillin G





Equivalence to IV penicillin18 requires confirmation.



Concomitant menigitis frequent.

Meningitis regimen(dagger)

(see above)


Peripheral neuropathy

Meningitis regimen(dagger)

(see above)




Up to 6 weeks of therapy recommended by one expert panel17 but no data available.







Penicillin G



Chronic encephalopathy







Penicillin G





Oral therapy as effective as intravenous; some patients treated orally develop


neurological disease (see text);19 role of synovial fluid PCR to determine duration of


treatment unclear;20 no comparison studies with shorter courses of therapy.










Lyme borreliosis in pregnancy(dagger)


No comparison trials; treatment duration should be appropriate for individual


manifestation of Lyme borreliosis (see above).

Penicillin G



Asymptomatic tick bite


Efficacy of prophylaxis not proven; risk of adverse effects for 10-day regimens studied


comparable to risk of contracting Lyme borreliosis.35



If not pregnant; for pregnant women with tick bites, either a 10 day course of


amoxicillin or no treatment are options. No studies have been done in this population.

*Few regimens studied in published trials in children; selection of amoxicillin in preference to penicillin V, or doxycycline to tetracycline is based upon convenience (decreased dosing) and theoretical concerns (higher attainable levels) and not upon comparison studies. (dagger)Pregnant or lactating women, and children 9 years old should not receive tetracyclines; tetracyclines are the only antimicrobial agents known to be effective against HGE agent. (ddouble agger)Paediatric dose should not exceed maximum adult dose. §Limited data available on treatment duration; studies comparing treatment duration in EM showed no outcome differences;4 duration of treatment for EM ranging from 10 to 30 days has been recommended.4 In one study of objective late Lyme disease (mostly arthritis) there was no difference in outcome with 14 or 28 days of ceftriaxone.33


Laboratory detection

For the diagnosis of an infectious disease, the "gold standard" is isolation of the causative agent in culture. Unfortunately, this standard has not been met in most case-series of Lyme borreliosis, despite the fact that B burgdorferi (unlike Treponema pallidum) can be readily cultured in vitro.8,10-13,26,28,36-38

The reliability of methods other than culture to detect spirochaetes in tissue specimens is open to question. For example, although forms resembling B burgdorferi can be identified by silver impregnation histochemical staining, spirochaetes can be difficult to distinguish from elastic tissue fibres or procollagen fibres and other artifacts. Monoclonal antibody staining and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques to detect DNA sequences specific for B burgdorferi in clinical specimens, even if positive, cannot distinguish between live and dead organisms, and results may persist as positive after clinical cure.25 A PCR may yield false-positive results if appropriately specific primers are not used or if precautions are not taken against contamination.25 Assays to detect B burgdorferi antigens in urine or in CSF have been insufficiently studied.8

In routine patient management, the diagnosis of EM in locations endemic for Lyme borreliosis is purely clinical. Laboratory testing is neither necessary nor recommended; when it is done in patients presenting with EM, culture is virtually 100% specific and appears to be more sensitive (57-86%)8,26 than serology (about 50% in the USA and <50% in Europe).10,12

In suspected extracutaneous Lyme borreliosis, laboratory support for the diagnosis is essential.5-7,14 Culture of B burgdorferi has been a highly insensitive diagnostic technique for these patients, presumably the tissues that contain the organism are so inaccessible. Although potentially useful and constantly improving, B burgdorferi antibody tests lack sensitivity (primarily in early disease) and specificity, and the assays have not been standardised.8,39 This has led to erroneous diagnoses and may have contributed to fundamental misunderstandings of Lyme borreliosis.

A two-step serological approach has been proposed by US authorities7 (and is being studied in Europe6), to increase specificity. A positive or equivocal first test (usually an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay [ELISA] or indirect immunofluorescence assay [IFA]) is followed on the same serum sample by an immunoblot test which can detect IgM and IgG antibodies to individual B burgdorferi antigens that have been separated by electrophoresis. If the immunoblot is negative the reactive ELISA or IFA will very probably have been a false-positive. A positive IgG blot is necessary to support a diagnosis of Lyme borreliosis in a patient who has been ill for more than a month.7 However, even sequential testing is not indicated if there is little or no clinical evidence of Lyme borreliosis because of the low positive predictive value.8,17 Neither ELISA (as usually reported) nor immunoblot permits detection of four-fold rises in antibody titre (seroconversion). Since IgM and IgG antibodies to B burgdorferi may persist in serum for years after clinical recovery,39 serology has no role in measuring response to treatment.

Patients with extracutaneous Lyme borreliosis almost always have diagnostic serum antibodies to B burgdorferi4,6 except for some patients with early seventh nerve palsy or occasional patients who have antibodies in CSF only.8 The specificity and sensitivity of T-lymphocyte recognition of B burgdorferi antigens are controversial.4,8,17 Reports claiming the utility of measuring specific B burgdorferi-associated immune complexes in the diagnosis of seronegative Lyme borreliosis require confirmation.


I scapularis ticks carry several other infections that may be transmitted, separately or simultaneously with B burgdorferi. Examples are Babesia microti, a parasite that causes a malaria-like infection,24 and the rickettsial agent that causes human granulocytic ehrlichiosis.25 In Europe, species of Babesia and Ehrlichia are present in I ricinus, which is also a vector for a flavivirus causing tick-borne encephalitis. It is unclear whether a Powassan/tick-borne-encephalitis-like virus, which has been identified in I scapularis from New England (USA),40 is associated with human illness.

Coinfection may alter the clinical presentation and response to treatment of Lyme borreliosis.24,25 Certain clinical features (eg, thrombocytopenia or leukopenia) which are not characteristic of Lyme borreliosis, should suggest coinfection with human granulocytic ehrlichiosis or babesiosis.24,25 Re-evaluation of the true incidence of fever, other constitutional symptoms and abnormal liver-function tests in Lyme borreliosis is warranted in areas in which human granulocytic ehrlichiosis is present, because coinfection could have confounded older studies. The possibility of coinfection with the tick-borne encephalitis virus in European patients is worth exploring too.


Although most manifestations of Lyme borreliosis resolve spontaneously without treatment, antibiotics may hasten resolution and prevent disease progression. An approach to treatment is summarised in panel 7. Quinolones, sulpha drugs, first-generation cephalosporins, rifampicin, and aminoglycosides have no appreciable activity against B burgdorferi; nor is there evidence to support combination antimicrobial therapy, prolonged (>1 month) or repeated antibiotic courses, or pulse or intermittent antibiotic therapy or the use of antibiotics to "release" borrelia antigens to enhance diagnosis. Within 24 h of the start of antibiotics, 15% of patients may transiently have intensified signs (eg, rash and fever) and symptoms (eg, arthralgias) consistent with Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction. There is no convincing evidence that such reactions occur after, or persist beyond, 24 h. Treatment is symptomatic.

Most persons treated for Lyme borreliosis have an excellent prognosis. Although some patients treated for EM in recent series continue to have a variety of mild nonspecific complaints following antibiotic therapy, objective extracutaneous disease after treatment is very rare. One recent study in New England reported that most Lyme borreliosis patients who were unwell 3 months after treatment had laboratory evidence of coinfection with babesiosis.24 Patients with carditis and neurological disease also tend to do well, though some do have residual deficits such as mild seventh nerve palsy after treatment.14-16,18 In patients with arthritis, clinical recovery typically coincides with antibiotic therapy (often combined with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug;19,20 occasional patients with subtle signs of neuroborreliosis who are treated orally (particularly with amoxicillin and probenecid) may develop overt neuroborreliosis.19 The concomitant use of amoxicillin and probenecid may be inadvisable because probenecid can impair penetration of ß-lactam antibiotics into brain parchenchyma.30 A small number of US patients with Lyme arthritis and the HLA-DR4 haplotype, who continue to have synovial inflammation for months or even years after apparent eradication of B burgdorferi from the joint with antibiotic therapy,4,19-21,39 have improved after synovectomy.19 Although viable B burgdorferi have been recovered from a few European patients after therapy,38 two prospective US studies reported that B burgdorferi could not be grown from skin-biopsy specimens in patients treated for EM whose preantibiotic skin cultures had been positive.36,37

Almost all treatment trials for Lyme borreliosis have lacked healthy controls, and underlying morbidity in "healthy" populations is well documented. For instance, a recent study compared complaints in 212 randomly selected patients with a history of Lyme borreliosis (reported to the Connecticut Health Department) 1-11 years earlier with age and residence matched controls. Preliminary results indicate that the patients with a history of Lyme borreliosis and the "healthy" controls had a similar incidence of an assortment of somatic complaints.41 Lyme borreliosis, like other infections, may trigger a fibromyalgia syndrome which does not appear to respond to repeated courses of antibiotics but may improve with symptomatic therapy.39

Many US patients with a variety of complaints of uncertain aetiology, including pain and fatigue syndromes, have been labelled as having "chronic Lyme disease" and prescribed unconventional treatments. These treatments have included months or even years of high-dose antibiotics (some never previously tested against B burgdorferi) singly or in combination, hyperbaric oxygen, ozone, and even the intentional inoculation of malaria to eradicate "persistent" spirochaetes. These treatments have not been shown to be effective and are potentially dangerous;42 they may also impede diagnostic evaluation.39,42


Recommendations to prevent Lyme borreliosis include avoiding exposure to nymphal stage Ixodes (or adult stage I persulcatus) ticks by limiting outdoor activities in tick-infested locations, using tick repellents, tucking in clothing, and frequent skin inspections for early detection and removal of ticks. Use of acaricides on property and construction of deer fences have also been proposed. Control of deer populations may diminish the numbers of ticks in isolated (ie, island) populations but is impractical since near-total elimination of deer is required for significant risk reduction.2

Antibiotic prophylaxis given to asymptomatic individuals after recognised I scapularis tick bites has not been shown to be effective in reducing the low (<5%) risk of acquiring Lyme borreliosis.35 Indeed, for every 10 cases of Lyme borreliosis theoretically prevented by prophylactic amoxicillin, one severe life-threatening drug reaction would be expected.35 Although the risk of Lyme borreliosis appears to be increased for those on whom a tick has fed for more than 48 h, there are no data to indicate that antimicrobial prophylaxis is beneficial even for this group.

A different approach is vaccination, which has been used in dogs since 1990. A single recombinant outer surface protein A (OspA) vaccine has been highly effective in preventing B burgdorferi infection in animals and appears to be safe and immunogenic in man. The published results of two US field trials of OspA vaccine preparations appear promising, principally in adults under 60 years of age.30,43,44 The efficacy of these vaccines may be partly related to the ability of OspA antibodies (ingested during the blood meal by the vector tick) to kill B burgdorferi in the tick gut, thus preventing transmission of the spirochaete.45 A single antigen OspA vaccine is expected to be less effective in Eurasia where species of Borrelia are more heterogeneous and OspA more variable.

Research directions

The linear chromosome (910 725 base-pairs) and 11 plasmids of B burgdorferi have been sequenced.46 This achievement should help to clarify how this organism survives in ticks and in animal reservoirs and how it infects humans and interacts with host defences. Insights into pathogenesis and pointers to novel diagnostic, preventive, and therapeutic methods are likely too. Also exciting is the observation that environmental triggers such as temperature and tick feeding influence gene expression in B burgdorferi,47 which in turn may relate to virulence properties and immunogenicity.

Our research has been supported in part by cooperative agreements U50/CCU 210286 (RBN) and U50/CCU 210280 (GPW) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and by grant RO1-AR43135 (GPW) from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. We thank Allen Steere, David Dennis, John Halperin, Durland Fish, and John Nowakowski for critical reviews of our paper.


1 Kurtenbach K, Sewell H-S, Ogden NH, Randolph SE, Nuttall PA. Serum complement sensitivity as a key factor in Lyme disease ecology. Infect Immun 1998; 66: 1248-51.

2 Fish D. Environmental risk and prevention of Lyme disease. Am J Med 1995; 98: 2S-7S.

3 Gern L, Burgdorfer W, Aeschlimann A, Krampitz HE. The ecology of Lyme borreliosis in Europe. In: Weber K, Burgdorfer W, Schierz G, eds. Aspects of Lyme borreliosis. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1993: 59-69.

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5 Anon. Case definitions for infectious conditions under public health surveillance: Lyme disease (revised 9/96). MMWR 1997; 46 (suppl RR-10) 20-21.

6 Stanek G, O'Connell S, Cimmino M, et al. European Union concerted action on risk assessment in Lyme borreliosis: clinical case definition for Lyme borreliosis. Wien Klin Wochenschr 1996; 108: 741-47.

7 Anon. Recommendations for test performance and interpetation from the Second National Conference on Serologic Diagnosis of Lyme Disease. MMWR 1995; 44: 590-91.

8 Tugwell P, Dennis DT, Weinstein A, et al. Clinical guideline 2: laboratory evaluation in the diagnosis of Lyme disease. Ann Intern Med 1997; 127: 1109-23.

9 Steere AC, Malawista SE, Hardin JA, Ruddy S, Askenase PW, Andiman WA. Erythema migrans and Lyme arthritis: the enlarging clinical spectrum. Ann Intern Med 1977; 86: 685-98.

10 Åsbrink E, Olsson I, Novmark A. Erythema chronicum migrans Afzelius in Sweden: a study on 231 patients. Zbl Bakt Hyg A 1986; 263: 229-36.

11 Nadelman RB, Nowakowski J, Forseter G, et al. The clinical spectrum of early Lyme borreliosis in patients with culture-confirmed erythema migrans. Am J Med 1996; 100: 502-08.

12 Strle F, Nadelman RB, Cimperman J, et al. Comparison of culture-confirmed erythema migrans in Europe and the United States. Unpublished.

13 Picken RN, Strle F, Ruzic-Sabljic E, et al. Molecular subtyping of Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato isolates from five patients with solitary lymphocytoma. J Invest Dermatol 1997; 108: 92-97.

14 van der Linde MR, Ballmer PE. Lyme carditis. In: Weber K, Burgdorfer W, Schierz G, eds. Aspects of Lyme borreliosis. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1993: 131-45.

15 Krüger H, Kohlhepp W, König S. Follow-up of antibiotically treated and untreated neuroborreliosis. Acta Neurol Scand 1990; 82: 59-67.

16 Logigian EL, Kaplan RF, Steere AC. Chronic neurologic manifestations of Lyme disease. N Engl J Med 1990; 323: 1438-44.

17 Halperin JJ, Logigian EL, Finkel MF, Pearl RA. Practice parameters for the diagnosis of patients with nervous system Lyme borreliosis (Lyme disease). Neurology 1996; 46: 619-27.

18 Karlsson M, Hammers-Berggren S, Lindquist L, Stiernstedt G, Svenungsson B. Comparison of intravenous penicillin G and oral doxycyline for treatment of Lyme neuroborreliosis. Neurology 1994; 44: 1203-07.

19 Steere AC, Levin RE, Molloy PJ, et al. Treatment of Lyme arthritis. Arthr Rheum 1994; 37: 877-88.

20 Nocton JJ, Dressler F, Rutledge BJ, Rys PN, Persing DH, Steere AC. Detection of Borrelia burgdorferi by polymerase chain reaction in synovial fluid from patients with Lyme arthritis. N Engl J Med 1994; 330: 229-34.

21 Steere AC, Schoen R, Taylor E. The clinical evolution of Lyme arthritis. Ann Intern Med 1987; 107: 725-31.

22 Gerber MA, Shapiro ED, Burke GS, et al. Lyme disease in children in southeastern Connecticut. N Engl J Med 1996; 335: 1270-74.

23 van Dam VP, Kuiper H, Vos K, et al. Different genospecies of Borrelia burgdorferi are associated with distinct clinical manifestations of Lyme borreliosis. Clin Infect Dis 1993; 17: 708-17.

24 Krause PJ, Telford SR III, Spielman A, et al. Concurrent Lyme disease and babesiosis: evidence for increased severity and duration of illness. JAMA 1996; 275: 1657-60.

25 Nadelman RB, Horowitz HW, Hsieh T-C, et al. Simultaneous human ehrlichiosis and Lyme borreliosis. N Engl J Med 1997; 337: 27-30.

26 Kirkland KB, Klimko TB, Meriwether RA, et al. Erythema migrans-like rash illness at a camp in North Carolina: a new tick-borne disease? Arch Intern Med 1997; 157: 2635-41.

27 State of Connecticut Department of Public Health. Lyme disease update. Conn Epidemiol 1993; 13: 9.

28 Stanek G, Klein J, Bittner R, Dietmar G. Isolation of Borrelia burgdorferi from the myocardium of a patient with longstanding cardiomyopathy. N Engl J Med 1990; 322: 249-52.

29 Sonnesyn SW, Diehl SC, Johnson RC, Kubo SH, Goodman JL. A prospective study of the seroprevalence of Borrelia burgdorferi infection in patients with severe heart failure. Am J Cardiol 1995; 76: 97-100.

30 Wormser GP. Treatment and prevention of Lyme disease, with emphasis on antimicrobial therapy for neuroborreliosis and vaccination. Semin Neurol 1997; 17: 45-52.

31 Nadelman RB, Herman E, Wormser GP. Screening for Lyme disease in hospitalized psychiatric patients: prospective serosurvey in an endemic area. Mt Sinai J Med 1997; 64: 409-12.

32 Maraspin V, Cimperman J, Lotrivc-Furlan, Pleterski-Rigler D, Strle F. Treatment of erythema migrans in pregnancy. Clin Infect Dis 1996; 22: 788-93.

33 Dattwyler RJ, Luft BJ, Maladorno D, et al. Treatment of late Lyme disease--a comparison of 2 weeks vs 4 weeks of ceftriaxone. In: Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress on Lyme Borreliosis (San Francisco, June 16-21, 1996): 662 (abstr).

34 Luft BJ, Dattwyler RJ, Johnson RC, et al. Azithromycin compared with amoxicillin in the treatment of erythema migrans: a double-blind, randomized, controlled trial. Ann Intern Med 1996; 124: 785-91.

35 Warshafsky S, Nowakowski J, Nadelman RB, Kamer RS, Peterson SJ. Wormser GP. Efficacy of antibiotic prophylaxis for prevention of Lyme disease. J Gen Intern Med 1996; 11: 329-33.

36 Berger BW, Johnson RC, Kodner C, Coleman L. Failure of Borrelia burgdorferi to survive in the skin of patients with antibiotic-treated Lyme disease. J Am Acad Dermatol 1992; 27: 34-37.

37 Nadelman RB, Nowakowski J, Forseter G, et al. Failure to isolate Borrelia burgdorferi after antimicrobial therapy in culture-documented Lyme borreliosis associated with erythema migrans: report of a prospective study. Am J Med 1993; 94: 583-88.

38 Preac-Mursic V, Weber K, Pfister HW, et al. Survival of Borrelia burgdorferi in antibiotically treated patients with Lyme borrelioss. Infection 1989; 17: 355-59.

39 Steere AC, Taylor E, McHugh GL, Logigian EL. The overdiagnosis of Lyme disease. JAMA 1993; 269: 1812-16.

40 Telford SR III, Armstrong PM, Katovolos P, et al. A new tick-borne encephalitis-like virus infecting New England deer ticks, Ixodes dammini. Emerging Infect Dis 1997; 3: 165-70.

41 Seltzer EG, Shapiro ED, Gerber MA, Cartter ML. Long-term outcomes of persons with Lyme disease. Clin Infect Dis 1997; 25: 361 (abstr 36).

42 Ettestad PJ, Campbell GL, Welbel SF, et al. Biliary complications in the treatment of unsubstantiated Lyme disease. J Infect Dis 1995; 171: 356-61.

43 Steere AC, Sikand VK, Meurice F, et al. Vaccination against Lyme disease with recombinant Borrelia Burgdorferi outer-surface lipoprotein A with adjuvant. N Engl J Med 1998; 339: 209-15.

44 Sigal LH, Zahradnik JM, Lavin P, et al. A vaccine consisting of recombinant Borelia burgdorferi outer-surface protein A to prevent lyme disease. N Engl J Med 1998; 339: 216-22.

45 de Silva AM, Fikrig E. Arthropod- and host-specific gene expression by Borrelia burgdorferi. J Clin Invest 1997; 94: 377-79.

46 Fraser CM, Casjens S, Huang WM, et al. Genomic sequence of a Lyme disease spirochaete, Borrelia burgdorferi. Nature 1997; 390: 580-86.

47 Schwan TG, Piesman J, Golde WT, Dolan MC, Rosa PA. Induction of an outer surface protein on Borrelia burgdorferi during tick feeding. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1995; 92: 2909-13.

Further reading


Barbour AG, Fish D. The biological and social phenomenon of Lyme disease. Science 1993; 260: 1610-16.

Rahn DW, Evans J, eds. Lyme disease. Philadelphia: American College of Physicians, 1998.

Sigal LH, ed. A symposium: National Clinical Conference on Lyme Disease. Am J Med 1995; 98 (suppl 4A): 1S-91S.

Weber K, Burgdorfer W, Schierz G, eds. Aspects of Lyme borreliosis. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1993.


Balmelli T, Piffaretti J-C. Association between different clinical manifestations of Lyme disease and different species of Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato. Res Microbiol 1995; 146: 329-40.

Baranton G, Postic D, Saint Girons I, et al. Delineation of Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto, Borrelia garinii sp nov, and Group VS461 associated with Lyme borreliosis. Int J Syst Bacteriol 1992; 42: 378-83.

Marti Ras N, Postic D, Foretz M, Baranton G. Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto, a bacterial species "made in the USA"? Int J Syst Bacteriol 1997; 47: 1112-17.

Ohlenbusch A, Matuschka F-R, Richter D. Etiology of the acrodermatitis chronica atrophicans lesion in Lyme disease. J Infect Dis 1996; 174: 421-23.

Epidemiology and transmission

Ai C, Hu R, Hyland K, et al. Epidemiological and aetiological
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Berglund J, Eitrem R, Ornstein K, et al. An epidemiologic study of Lyme disease in Sweden. N Engl J Med 1995; 333: 1319-24.

Dennis DT. Lyme disease. Dermatol Clinics 1995; 13: 537-51.

Garcia-Monco JC. European Lyme disease. In: Coyle PK. Lyme disease. St Louis: Mosby-Year Book, 1993: 219-25.

Korenberg EI, Kryuchechnikov VN, Kovalevsky YV. Advances in investigations of Lyme borreliosis in the territory of the former USSR. Eur J Epidemiol 1993; 9: 86-91.

Matuschka F-R, Fischer P, Heiler M, Blümcke S, Spielman A. Stage-associated risk of transmission of the Lyme disease spirochete by European Ixodes ticks. Parasitol Res 1992; 78: 695-98.

Clinical manifestations

Erythema migrans

Berger BW. Dermatologic manifestations of Lyme disease. Rev Infect Dis 1989; 11: S1475-81.

Steere AC, Bartenhagen NH, Craft JE, et al. The early clinical manifestations of Lyme disease. Ann Intern Med 1983; 99: 66-82.

Strle F, Nelson JA, Ruzic-Sabljic E, et al. European Lyme borreliosis: 231 culture-confirmed cases involving patients with erythema migrans. Clin Infect Dis 1996; 23: 61-65.


Rubin D, Sorbera D, Nikitin P, McAllister A, Wormser GP, Nadelman RB. Prospective evaluation of heart block complicating early Lyme disease. Pacing Clin Electrophysiol 1992; 15: 252-55.

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Steere AC, Batsford WP, Weinberg M, et al. Lyme carditis: an important cause of reversible heart block. Ann Intern Med 1980; 110: 339-45.


Clark JR, Carlson RD, Sasaki CT, Pachner AR, Steere AC. Facial paralysis in Lyme disease. Laryngoscope 1985; 95: 1341-45.

Garcia-Monco JC, Benach JL. Lyme neuroborreliosis. Ann Neurol 1995; 37: 691-702.

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Gross DM, Forsthuber T, Tary-Lehmann M, et al. Identification of LFA-1 as a candidate autoantigen in treatment-resistant Lyme arthritis. Science 1998; 281: 703-06.

Hovmark A, Åsbrink E, Olsson I. Joint and bone involvement in Swedish patients with Ixodes ricinus-borne Borrelia infection. Zbl Bakt Hyg A 1986; 263: 275-84.

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Miralles D, Hartman B, Brause B, Fisher L, Murray HW. Not everything that glitters is Lyme disease. Am J Med 1992; 93: 352-53.

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Aguero-Rosenfeld M, Nowakowski J, McKenna DF, et al. Serodiagnosis in early Lyme disease. J Clin Microbiol 1993; 31: 3090-95.

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Treatment and prevention

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