Lyme disease is constantly making the news thanks to the alarming explosion of cases. Transmitted by ticks this disease affects an estimated 300,000 people per year in the United States.
It’s important to catch Lyme disease as early as possible to reduce the risk of complications. So, just what can someone expect from the initial infection stage?…
An Embedded Tick
Lyme disease can only be transmitted if an infected deer tick bites and remains embedded in the skin for at least 36 hours.
It is not necessary to keep the tick or to take it somewhere for testing. Even if a tick tests positive for Lyme, it does not mean the person acquired Lyme disease from it. Furthermore, the tests aren’t too terribly accurate, so a negative test result is also meaningless.
After someone is bitten by a tick, what should they be on the lookout for to see if they have Lyme disease?…
One of the first symptoms that will appear with Lyme disease? A large, circular rash that will likely not itch or feel painful. Around 70 to 80% of infected individuals will develop a rash at the site of the tick bite about a week after infection.
Not everyone develops a rash. Additionally, if the tick bite occurred on the scalp, the rash might not be visible.
If no rash is present, it’s still possible to notice other physical symptoms, like the following…
Fever & Fatigue
Within one to three weeks after infection, a low-grade fever, headache, and fatigue will develop and persist for a few days. Many people compare these symptoms to catching a cold.
Some people recover from this phase without any treatment and don’t go on to develop further symptoms. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for everyone. In this case, a 10-day course of antibiotics will help.
The Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria—which causes Lyme—tries to evade the immune system by hiding inside certain tissues and cells. If it manages to hide—and antibiotics aren’t administered early—the condition can progress into the middle phase of infection.
What can someone expect if Lyme progresses?…
Severe Headaches & Neck Stiffness
After a short period of feeling flu-ish, symptoms of untreated Lyme usually go away. Then, perhaps weeks or even months later, additional symptoms, including headaches, light sensitivity and neck stiffness, may manifest.
These symptoms are caused by the bacteria invading the nervous system. When this invasion occurs, wild pain signals can be sent to the brain, causing these uncomfortable sensations.
If someone still does not receive treatment for Lyme, other symptoms can develop…
Facial palsy is another symptom Lyme disease can cause in this stage. With this condition, one side of the face becomes temporarily paralyzed. As a result, the face appears to droop due to damage to the nerves. It is a result of Lyme bacteria invading the nervous system and can last for a while:
- 4 months: It typically takes this long before recovery begins.
- 18 months: It can take up to this long to completely recover from this symptom.
Treatment with antibiotics against Lyme-causing bacteria does not affect the recovery time from facial palsy. Still, an estimated 99.2% of affected patients will completely recover on their own.
Avoiding a trip to the doctor, which is never advisable in these circumstances, can mean the following painful symptom develops…
Shooting Pains (Radiculopathy)
One fairly common manifestation of Lyme is radiculopathy or shooting pains. These pains can occur in the arms and legs as the infected nerves fire off at random. Some individuals experience numbness instead of shooting pains when inflamed neurons temporarily stop working.
Radiculopathy usually but not always primarily affects the limb located closest to the site of the tick bite. Infected individuals also often experience somewhat random aches and pains in the following body parts during this stage of the infection:
Other easily spotted signs of Lyme disease may also develop during this time…
Bull’s eye rashes may appear at random sites on the body during this time. They will look like a typical rash but with an expanding red ring. The initial rash will not be painful or itchy, but after expanding slowly for a few days, the rash will disappear, only to reappear somewhere else.
Although rare in the United States, cases of Lyme disease in Europe frequently cause what is called lymphocytoma. In this condition, a dark purple lump develops on the ear lobe, nipple, or scrotum.
Additionally in Europe, Lyme has caused acrodermatitis chronica atrophicans (ACA). This condition refers to a red patch that develops on the back of one of the hands or sometimes on a foot. The skin lesion can remain for months before resolving.
Rashes are no fun, but the following sign of Lyme is particularly alarming…
Irregular Heart Beat
This symptom occurs when Lyme-causing bacteria enter heart tissues. There, the bacteria damage the electrical system that controls the beating of the heart. This damage can result in the heart alternating between beating too quickly and too slowly.
Affected individuals usually notice these symptoms:
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
After treatment, most cases of Lyme carditis will resolve.
Still, in some cases, the heart is irreversibly damaged by the bacteria. In these cases, the condition may progress to congestive heart failure despite the successful treatment of the Lyme disease.
The initial and middle stages of Lyme are no fun, but they look positively tame compared to the final stage of this disease…
Swollen, Painful Knees
As the immune system tries to fight off the invading bacteria, it begins to inflict damage on tissues of the body. One common manifestation of this autoimmune-like attack? Swollen, painful knees.
The swelling and pain can be bilateral (affect both sides of the body), affect multiple joints, or only affect one joint.
This condition most commonly manifests around six months after the initial infection.
For most people, joint swelling and pain rapidly resolve after treatment with antibiotics. Unfortunately, some people with a genetic predisposition to autoimmune diseases will continue to experience problems.
The most severe complication of Lyme disease just might be the following…
Encephalitis (Inflammation of the Brain)
In rare cases, prolonged Lyme infection can cause neurological symptoms that resemble encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain.
The affected individual can experience a wide variety of symptoms, including:
- Cognitive impairment
- Memory problems
- Altered gait
- Balance issues
Some lyme disease cases progress to schizophrenia-like symptoms or even overt psychosis, which can lead to:
- Panic attacks
- Delusional states
It is unclear if these symptoms are caused directly by bacterial damage to the brain or if they are caused by bacteria triggering an autoimmune attack on the brain. Although, most experts are leaning towards an autoimmune attack, since in many ways this condition resembles multiple sclerosis (an autoimmune disease). The fact that this condition doesn’t respond to treatment with antibiotics also suggests autoimmune attacks are to blame,
Even after Lyme is successfully treated, the disease can continue to plague sufferers in the form of post-Lyme syndrome…
Post-Lyme Syndrome: Fatigue, Aches, & Cognitive Impairment
After being treated for Lyme disease, some patients go on to develop post-Lyme syndrome, which can involve serious brain fog.
Experts are not sure why this happens. Speculation that the bacteria hadn’t actually been eradicated was laid to rest after several randomized and controlled trials showed that aggressive, prolonged antibiotic therapy did not change the progression or course of this syndrome.
There are precedents to experiencing a prolonged post-treatment recovery period; post-viral fatigue syndrome, which can develop after recovery from influenza or other common viral infections, is well-documented. The affected individual is fatigued and sometimes feels depressed for several months before spontaneously recovering.
So, what should someone who suspects that they have Lyme disease do?
Don’t Leave It To Chance
Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted by ticks.
Prevention is the best medicine.
The best approach? Avoid getting bitten in the first place. Great methods to reduce odds of tick bites include:
- Using insect repellant
- Wearing long pants tucked into socks
- Conducting daily tick checks
Seek treatment early, if possible.
Lyme disease is easily treated during the initial infection period. Therefore it is essential to be aware of the early symptoms, which include a very distinctive rash and mild flu-like symptoms.
Those who miss these first symptoms should know that Lyme disease can still be treated during the middle or late stage. This treatment typically occurs once symptoms like rashes, neurological manifestations, cardiac dysfunction, and swollen joints are noted.
Lyme disease can lead to other health problems.
Most cases treated during the middle and late stages of infection will completely clear up after two to four weeks of antibiotics. Still, unfortunately, Lyme disease seems to trigger the onset of autoimmune diseases in some cases.
In addition, some individuals are afflicted with post-Lyme syndrome, during which they spend months experiencing fatigue, “brain fog,” and aches and pains before it finally resolves on its own.