Recently, a reader mentioned she thought she had flu-like symptoms that turned out to be Lyme disease. She’s not alone. Lyme disease is often called the “great masquerader,” because it can present itself with the symptoms of other diseases—including the flu.
One of the biggest problems with Lyme disease is that more than 70% of diagnostic tests come back negative, even if someone has Lyme. So, people often go untreated for years, until the Lyme disease symptoms get so bad that they can even be fatal.
What Are the Signs of Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial disease that usually presents itself in its early stages with unresolved flu-like symptoms such as:
- Sore throat,
If it’s not caught and treated early, Lyme disease symptoms can progress to include:
- Muscle aches,
- Cognitive dysfunction,
- Neurological complaints,
- Migratory joint pain (that means the pain moves around—your knees are a common site),
- Generalized chronic fatigue.
In fact, Lyme disease can manifest itself as over 300 diseases. Patients can walk into a doctor’s office with symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS), or worse amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and actually have Lyme disease. Others could have headache, joint or muscle pain, thyroid issues, heart problems, or cognitive issues, and have Lyme.
How Is Lyme Disease Contracted?
We used to believe Lyme was transmitted exclusively through tick bites. But we now know that Lyme and other microorganisms can potentially be transmitted through sexual intercourse, breast milk, mosquito bites, flea bites, and blood transfusions.
Lyme disease can even be transmitted to an unborn baby in utero. We’re seeing babies born with Lyme disease, although symptoms often don’t show up until puberty or later in adulthood. In these cases, symptoms can show up when hormonal levels change dramatically, from re-exposure through a new tick bite, or when a significant stressor presents itself such as a motor vehicle accident.
Is the Primary Sign of Lyme Disease Still a “Bull’s-Eye” Rash?
A “bull’s eye” rash, with a red center and concentric rings, is a Lyme disease symptom that only develops if a person contracts Lyme disease through a tick bite—and unfortunately, it doesn’t develop with every tick bite. In fact, only 50% of patients with Lyme disease report a bull’s eye rash. To make matters worse, not all tick bites cause a "bull's eye" rash, but present themselves with a red irritated rash which is often misdiagnosed.
The other problem is that there are many varieties of what we call Lyme disease. Some ticks only carry the Lyme bacteria. But quite often, ticks—which are nature’s “dirty needles”—carry a host of other microorganisms like bacteria and parasites.
Testing for Lyme Disease
Lyme disease is diagnosed based on four things: patient history and exposure, symptoms, lab work, and physical exam findings. It’s a clinical diagnosis, which means that a positive test for Lyme disease is not necessary if other factors point in the direction of Lyme. For example, if a patient reports a tick attachment and they develop signs and symptoms consistent with Lyme infection that is not explained with other diagnoses, then Lyme should be strongly considered.
If you have unresolved symptoms, such as muscle aches, and chronic fatigue that aren’t responding to standard treatments, testing for Lyme disease should be considered. The same is true if you have atypical cardiovascular symptoms that could be signs of Lyme disease—such as passing out, dizziness, lightheadedness, chest pain that’s sharp when breathing, or profound symptoms of shortness of breath or fatigue. In fact, Lyme disease should be considered any time a person is ill with unexplained symptoms.
The first test for Lyme disease your doctor can do is the blood enzyme immunoassay (EIA) or blood immunofluorescence assay (IFA). If either test comes back positive, your doctor can request a Western blot test. The problem, though, is that the majority of these tests can produce a false negative even if Lyme disease is present. In fact, there’s just a 65% sensitivity with the EIA test, which is quite low. Fortunately, there are health professionals who are Lyme disease specialists who can quickly recognize Lyme disease symptoms.
How Do You Find a Lyme Disease Specialist?
Lyme literate doctors (LLND, LLMD) are specialists in treating complex chronic disease. The International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society is a well-recognized organization that can help guide you to find a Lyme disease specialist in your area.
You want to seek a doctor that combines the best of both conventional and alternative medicine. Killing the microorganisms with pharmaceutical or herbal antibiotics is only one piece of the healing puzzle when it comes to Lyme disease treatment. Maximizing detoxification pathways with targeted immune supportive therapies helps people to get better faster.
If you see a tick attachment and develop a bull’s eye rash, a four week course of antibiotics is generally enough to eliminate the infection. But if you’ve been infected with Lyme disease and other infectious organisms for a long time, which is the majority of Lyme patients, treatment for Lyme disease can take anywhere from six months to two years, or even longer. Some patients, however, begin to feel better immediately after beginning treatment.
Here is a video on what you do if you have a tick on you: