A Huge Proportion of the World’s Population May Have Had Lyme Disease

The shadow of a tick through a leaf

The illness can come with nasty symptoms, including fever, headaches, and fatigue.

According to new research, up to 14% of people in the world — about one in seven of the global population — may have had Lyme disease. The tick-borne illness, which has become much more common over the years, can come with some nasty symptoms. Here’s what you need to know. 

Who’s at the highest risk of catching Lyme disease?

The regions with the highest rates of Lyme disease — judging by the antibodies found in subjects’ blood — were central Europe with 20.7%, eastern Asia with 15.9% and western Europe with 13.5%. The Caribbean, southern Asia and Oceania had the lowest rates, all falling under 5%. The infection rate in North America is just over 9%.

Men over 50 in the northern hemisphere who work outdoors in rural areas are at the highest risk of exposure. Having a job that puts you in close contact with animals is also a significant risk factor, as you’re more likely to get bitten by infected ticks carrying the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes the disease.

Why does this matter?

Lyme disease can come with nasty symptoms including fever, headaches, and fatigue — and in serious cases, heart palpitations, and paralysis on one side of the face.

Between 70 and 80% of those infected develop a “bullseye” rash on the site of the tick bite between 3 and 30 days after contact, with the average rash taking about a week to appear. According to the CDC, symptoms can appear days or even months after the bite. Arthritis, along with severe joint pain and swelling, can affect the knees and other large joints in particular. The brain and spinal chord can become inflamed, and patients sometimes experience shooting pains in the hands and feet, as well as intermittent pain in tendons, muscles, joints, and bones.

The condition is treatable with antibiotics but left unchecked, it can cause lasting damage and inflammation all over sufferers’ bodies.

According to the study, Lyme disease has spread globally in recent years as a “chronic, multisystemic vectorborne disease. Such vectorborne diseases… pose a significant and growing public health problem and are major causes of disease and death worldwide.”

Is Lyme disease becoming more prevalent over time?

Lyme disease has become far more common over the years, which may at least in part be due to warming global temperatures. Longer summers, shorter winters, and changes in humidity — which create the ideal conditions for ticks to multiply — can all accelerate its spread. According to the new research, about 8% of people studied between 2001 and 2010 carried Lyme disease antibodies, versus 12% in the following decade.

In the U.S., confirmed cases of the illness increased by 44 percent from 1999 to 2019, per the CDC. As humans encroach further on forested areas where ticks tend to live, and the warm, muggy conditions ticks thrive in continue to prevail, this infection rate may well rise even more.

Dr. Peter Krause, a senior research scientist at the Yale School of Public Health who was not involved in the study, told NBC that an expansion in deer populations — which carry ticks — is also a major factor. “Wherever deer are, the number of ticks explodes,” he said.