Lyme Disease Symptoms

Lyme disease symptoms mimic those of hundreds of other disorders, therefore Lyme is known in the medical profession as the Great Imitator. Symptoms typically include fever, crushing fatigue, headache and a bull's eye rash called erythema migrans (EM) that occurs on the skin at the tick bite. Lyme symptoms can be very difficult to diagnose. Symptoms manifest differently from patient to patient and depending on the stage of the disease. For these reasons, treatment can be delayed. Meantime, the patient suffers.

Lyme Symptoms vary but may include: 
Extreme fatigue
Skin rash (EM as well as other types)
Light sensitivity
Nervous system disorders
Mood swings
Cognitive disorganization
Air hunger
Shortness of breath
Hearing loss
Facial paralysis
Swelling of the legs and ankles

Bull's eye rash
The bull's eye rash is considered by many to be commonly accepted evidence of the Borrelia infection. In the northeastern US where Lyme is endemic, doctors consider its presence reason enough to indicate the need to move forward in treatment. However, in many other regions doctors do not believe that Lyme disease is a problem. They maintain that the Lyme infection is not spread as readily as in the northeast, or at all. Patients in southern and southeastern states, for example, report that doctors do not typically test for Lyme disease even when a bull's eye rash is present.

While the bull's eye or EM can be a classic Lyme symptom, not everyone who has Lyme disease develops the characteristic rash. Lyme experts say the number of people infected with Lyme who present with EM may even be as low as 30%. Further, a rash hidden in the hair or on the back, back of the knees or thighs can easily be missed by the patient themselves

Difficult to diagnose, hard to cure
In a best-case scenario, a person who has been bitten by an embedded tick has discovered it on themselves immediately. They remove the tick safely and place it into a baggie or a jar to have it analyzed. Safe removal is simply to pull out the tick with tweezers as close to the skin as possible, without twisting or damaging the tick body, and without removing the head from the tick's body. Under the care of a Lyme-literate doctor or informed team of medical professionals, the person at once begins antibiotic therapy.

Unfortunately, the best-case scenario is only that. On the contrary, many people never even see the tick that bit them. Prompt detection of a tiny tick that can be the size of a poppy seed may be quite difficult. Ticks also secrete an anesthetizing substance at the location of the bite that prevents the host from feeling any pain or itch. Some people are not aware that they've been bitten until long after the tick has already dropped off their skin. Still others who are eventually diagnosed with Lyme may not ever suspect a tick bite, see any evidence of one, nor have any memory of exposure to ticks.

Moreover, it is not yet known how long the Borrelia bacteria may lie dormant. There are cases of people becoming ill many years, even decades, after having been bitten by a tick. Some people do not develop symptoms immediately after being infected. They may develop Lyme symptoms only later, after another illness or health crisis has compromised the immune system. And evidently, some fortunate people who have been exposed may never develop symptoms at all.

Tracking Lyme disease symptoms
People who suspect they may have Lyme or one of the co-infections are well-advised to keep a record of symptoms. Write down the date, time of day, and description of the symptom. Be as specific as possible. Recording the objective facts can be beneficial in diagnosis and treatment. When possible, take pictures of visible symptoms. It is important to keep careful records of any supplements or medicines taken and reactions to them.

The replication cycle of the Lyme bacteria is very slow, as compared to other bacteria. As a result, antibiotic therapy has a smaller window of opportunity to kill the bacteria.

Lyme expert Dr. Lee Cowden estimates that up to fifty percent of patients diagnosed with autoimmune diseases have the Borrelia bacteria either as the cause of, or as a contributor to, their suffering. This is significant because Lyme can be treated with antibiotics. However, a misdiagnosed patient who is harboring undetected Lyme disease bacteria may go months or even years without treatment.  Like chronic fatigue (CFS) symptoms, indicants of a Lyme infection may include overall aches, arthritic swelling of the knees and other large joints, and crushing fatigue that is unrelieved with bed rest. However, Lyme does not only cause flu-like symptoms and severe joint pain.  Typically, the elimination organs are invaded: Kidneys, bladder, liver, skin and lymph glands. The Borrelia bacteria is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier, affecting the brain. In addition, the heart can be affected. The Borrelia bacteria's affect on the heart and the brain can cause an irregular heart beat, poor concentration, mood swings and depression. 

  • Cognitive symptoms include short-term memory loss, stammering, the inability to finish a thought or comprehend a page of writing. Since these symptoms are also commonly associated with old age, they can easily be passed over by a doctor searching for a diagnosis. Again, treatment can be delayed.

  • Cardiac symptoms such as arrhythmia, or an irregular heart beat, cause poor blood circulation especially to the extremities. Untreated cardiac symptoms are potentially dangerous and may lead to congestive heart failure.

Additionally, patients commonly report some psychotic episodes, including hallucinations involving their sense of sight, smell and hearing. The list of symptoms is long and varied because the Borrelia bacteria affects every bodily system.

Other factors influencing diagnosis
Ginger Savely, FNP, RN, treats patients with Lyme, co-infections, and other tick-borne diseases at a San Francisco, California, medical clinic. She says some people appear to have an "aspect of predisposition toward becoming disabled by the infection."

Savely frequently treats members of the same family, observing that although there are remarkable exceptions, family members often have a similar tendency to succumb to the Lyme infection. 

Just as some people are more susceptible to mosquito bites than others, some seem to be more predisposed to tick bites. Savely also remarks that studies have shown there appear to be "some genetic typings that are going to get more sick with the infection than others.”

Standard testing
Due to the combination of unreliable tests and the variety of symptoms, Lyme disease is frequently under-diagnosed and treatment delayed. It can be misdiagnosed as a number of other illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), Epstein-Barr virus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and Alzheimer's disease.

The Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria is pleomorphic, which can further complicate testing and treatment. Pleomorphic bacteria is capable of changing shape. It morphs from a corkscrew or spiral into two, three, or more different shapes. Then it can change back into a spiral again. The bacteria appears to change in order to protect itself in a hostile environment. The body’s immune system and antibiotics are hostile to the Lyme bacteria.  When it changes shape it is capable of cloaking itself, rendering the bacteria undetectable by the immune system. It can, and does, hide in body tissue and inside cysts. It is unknown how long it may be able to remain dormant.

All these factors contribute to creating tricky grounds for a medical expert to reach a conclusive diagnosis.

Persistent symptoms
According to the IDSA and the CDC, the standard Lyme treatment is 2 – 4 weeks of antibiotic therapy. ILADS, an organization of medical experts and doctors, recommends a different standard of care that allows for longer prescribed time for antibiotic therapy.

When Lyme symptoms persist beyond the prescribed antibiotic treatment, the condition is no longer considered to be caused a Lyme infection. This condition of lingering symptoms is often called “chronic Lyme disease” and is more recently labeled as Post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. PTLDS is said to occur in 10 – 20% of Lyme patients. The cause of PTLDS is as yet unknown.

These factors, in addition to the long list of symptoms that could indicate other diseases, and the stealth nature of the bacteria combine to make Lyme Disease difficult to test for. It is therefore important to recognize that negative clinical test results do not necessarily mean the patient is free of Lyme or its co-infections.

Although every case is different, if symptoms are left untreated, Lyme can be devastating. Unfortunately, the effect of professional misdiagnoses results in many patients going untested for Lyme. Therefore, they remain untreated and their symptoms worsen.

Learn more about  Lyme disease symptoms  by becoming a member of the LDRD, where you can listen to what Lyme specialists who treat patients every day have to say. You get the opportunity to hear a “second opinion” about Lyme symptoms, diagnoses and treatment from doctors, scientific researchers and other experts in the medical field.

Read the latest news about  Lyme disease symptoms.

References: ILADS, the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society

Ginger Savely, FNP, RN, oral communication 4/13/08

American Academy of Physicians

Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Beating Lyme Disease by Dr. David Jernigan, B.S., D.C., and Dr. Sara Koch Jernigan, B.S. D.C.

Academy for Bio-Energetic and Integrative Medicine