As the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun, many of its residents head outside for fresh air and fun. But while spending time outdoors is associated with a variety of health benefits, it also comes with risks. One of these is Lyme disease.
Even as the number of Lyme cases continues to climb at a rate some experts find alarming, many people – including healthcare professionals – still don’t know much about this insidious infection. This lack of understanding, among other challenges, can prevent Lyme patients from receiving the care they need to get healthy.
Here is some basic information about Lyme disease, as well as an explanation of three potential complications that can occur in the treatment of Lyme disease.
What is Lyme disease and how is it contracted?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by a corkscrew-shaped bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. Rodents and other small mammals, as well as certain types of birds, often harbour the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium. When ticks known as Ixodes, black-legged or deer ticks feed on these creatures, they themselves become infected with Borrelia burgdorferi. In turn, these ticks transmit Borrelia burgdorferi to humans through their bites, which leads to Lyme disease.
What are the symptoms of acute Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is generally described in two stages: acute and chronic. While there is some overlap, each of these stages is characterised by unique symptoms as well. Acute Lyme disease is the early stage of infection, and its symptoms include:
- An expanding red rash that sometimes resembles a bullseye or target (known as erythema migrans)
- Headaches and neck stiffness
- Joint pain and swelling
- Weakness or paralysis of facial muscles
- Lightheadedness or fainting
- Heart palpitations or chest pain
What are the symptoms of chronic Lyme disease?
Although diagnosis and treatment during the acute stage of Lyme disease will ideally prevent the illness from progressing, this isn’t always the case. Lyme disease that continues to persist after treatment is called chronic Lyme disease, and some of its symptoms are:
- Muscle aches
- Joint pain
- Impaired cognition (including memory loss, trouble concentrating or ‘brain fog’)
- Neuropathy (including nerve pain, numbness, or tingling)
- Sleep problems
- Changes in mood
- Digestive issues
What are the potential complications that can occur in the treatment of Lyme disease?
Because Lyme disease is a complex condition that is often misunderstood, complications can occur in its treatment. Three of these complications are:
Medical illiteracy in recognising Lyme disease
Awareness of Lyme disease is spreading, but many practitioners are still under-educated when it comes to recognising and treating Lyme infection. Lyme disease shares symptoms with a number of illnesses, including the common cold. For this reason, a doctor who’s not trained to look for Lyme disease may miss it completely, resulting in a misdiagnosis.
By the time a misdiagnosed patient finds a practitioner who recognises Lyme disease, the infection may have progressed beyond the acute phase.
Lack of patient awareness
The problem of medical illiteracy can also extend to patients. People who don’t know to watch out for tick bites may not even realise they’ve been bitten, and therefore may not recognise the symptoms they subsequently experience as those of Lyme disease.
Even those who are aware of Lyme disease risk typically look for the characteristic bullseye rash that indicates a bite from an infected tick, but this rash doesn’t always appear.
Difficulty in treatment of Lyme disease after it enters the chronic phase
In cases where Lyme disease is caught early, antibiotic therapy can be an extremely effective treatment – some experts say up to 90% of infections are cured this way. Unfortunately, many people continue to experience symptoms of Lyme disease after treatment with antibiotics, and their infection moves into the chronic phase.
So what makes chronic Lyme disease so hard to treat? For starters, some people simply aren’t aware that such a condition exists. Still others have heard of chronic Lyme disease but refuse to acknowledge its existence – they claim there’s no such thing as chronic Lyme disease, and as such aren’t willing to diagnose or treat it.
For healthcare providers who believe in the reality of chronic Lyme disease as a legitimate medical condition, hurdles to effective treatment are many. For patients whose infection has proven resistant to antibiotics, it can be a struggle to find an alternative. And symptoms of chronic Lyme disease can prove equally hard to treat, which can drastically affect a patient’s quality of life.
With so many potential complications that can occur in the treatment of Lyme disease, is it any wonder there’s so much confusion surrounding this illness? By educating ourselves about Lyme disease and its symptoms, along with its diagnosis and treatment, we can move toward avoiding these complications. This will allow us to focus on providing the best possible outcome for patients in both phases of Lyme infection.