PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Erythema chronicum migrans is a characteristic clinical feature of Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis). It is a distinctive rash, which occurs in the majority of people infected with Borrelia burgdorferi. This infection is transmitted to humans by the bite of a tick from the genus Ixodes.
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- Nearly 8,000 cases of Lyme disease have been reported in England and Wales since enhanced surveillance began in 1997. Mean annual incidence rate is now approximately 1.73 cases per 100,000 population.
- Whilst Lyme disease can occur in people of all ages and gender, the peak age range affected is 45-64, followed by 24-44.
- In the UK, areas where infection is acquired include Exmoor, the New Forest, the South Downs, parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire, Surrey, West Sussex, Thetford Forest, the Lake District, the North Yorkshire moors and the Scottish Highlands.
- About 15% of confirmed cases are reported to have been acquired abroad and mostly by holidaymakers. The majority are acquired in the USA, France, Germany, Scandinavia and other northern and central European countries. Recently, numbers of cases in the UK acquired in central and eastern Europe have been increasing. The infection can also be found in temperate forested areas of Asia, including Russia, China and Japan.
- In Europe erythema chronicum migrans occurs as a presenting feature in up to 90% of those infected. Presentation does appear to depend upon the Borrelia species involved; therefore, in other parts of the world the rash may be a less common presenting sign.
- The characteristic manifestation of early Lyme disease (stage 1) is erythema chronicum migrans: a circular rash at the site of the infectious tick attachment, which radiates from the bite. It can appear within 3-36 days, but typically in 7-10.
- It starts as a red macule or papule at the site of the tick bite after a (typically 7- to 10-day) delay.
- The rash is round or oval, and pink, red or purple. There is often central sparing giving a target-like appearance, and the diameter is usually larger than 5 cm. The nature of the rash and the likelihood of its presence are partly dependent on the species involved and therefore differ between continents.
- Untreated, this can last for some weeks, but eventually resolves
- Common areas include the popliteal fossa, groin, the axilla, the thorax and the trunk. The hairline and scalp are especially common in children.
- It may be associated with other symptoms of infection, including fatigue, myalgia, arthralgia, headache, fever, stiff neck, and regional lymphadenopathy.
- It may also be associated with later developments such as carditis, neurological disease, arthritis, and acrodermatitis chronica atrophicans (a swollen, bluish-red skin lesion on a distal extremity).
- Local tick bite reactions
- Tinea (ringworm)
- Insect bites
- Discoid eczema
- Contact dermatitis
- Erythema multiforme
- Granuloma annulare
- Erythema annulare centrifugum
- In the presence of a characteristic rash and history of tick bite, investigation is not be required.
- Discuss necessity and timing of testing with a local microbiologist
- Serology may be necessary. All testing for Lyme disease is centralised at Public Health England (PHE) Porton. Blood is tested for antibodies to B. burgdorferi.
Although the rash will resolve spontaneously over weeks or months, antibiotics hasten resolution and help prevent progression to Lyme disease:
- Doxycycline is the antibacterial of choice for early Lyme disease. It should be given in a dose of 100 mg twice daily for 14 days. It is contra-indicated in children under the age of 12, and in pregnant and breast-feeding women.
- Amoxicillin (500 mg three times a day) or cefuroxime (500 mg twice a day) are alternatives if doxycycline is contra-indicated. Again, treatment should be for 14 days.
- Children under the age of 12 should have amoxicillin first-line (50 mg/kg/day in three divided doses) or cefuroxime (30 mg/kg per day in two divided doses) for 14 days.
- Macrolides such as azithromycin or clarithromycin should be reserved as third-line treatment as they are not as effective as the aforementioned antibiotics.
- Avoid exposure to tick bites.
- Remove ticks as soon as possible. Ticks take some time to transmit infection, so this may be prevented if removed quickly.
- Antibiotic prophylaxis can be offered in endemic areas under certain circumstances if the tick bite can be positively identified.
Further reading & references
- Erythema chronicum migrans; DermIS (Dermatology Information System)
- Guidelines on the diagnosis and management of European Lyme neuroborreliosis; European Federation of Neurological Societies (2010)
- Prevention and control of tick-borne disease in Europe - Information to healthcare professionals; European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
- Lyme disease: guidance, data and analysis; Public Health England
- The epidemiology, prevention, investigation and treatment of Lyme borreliosis in United Kingdom patients: a position statement by the British Infection Association. J Infect. 2011 May;62(5):329-38. doi: 10.1016/j.jinf.2011.03.006. Epub 2011 Mar 21.
- Lyme disease; NICE CKS, January 2010 (UK access only)
- British National Formulary
- Wormser GP, Dattwyler RJ, Shapiro ED et al.; The clinical assessment, treatment, and prevention of lyme disease, human granulocytic anaplasmosis, and babesiosis: clinical practice guidelines by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Clin Infect Dis. 2006 Nov 1;43(9):1089-134. Epub 2006 Oct 2.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Laurence Knott
Dr Mary Harding
Prof Cathy Jackson