Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne illness in North America. It’s transmitted via the bites of ticks infected with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Approximately 300,000 people are diagnosed with the disease every year in the United States. Most infections take place around the Northeast and upper Midwest.
Deer ticks (sometimes called back-legged ticks) are the only type of tick transmitting the disease in the United States. They live in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic (northeast Virginia to Maine), in the North central states (mainly Wisconsin and Minnesota), and on the West Coast (mainly northern California).
Lyme disease can be identified by the characteristic erythema migrans rash, which usually has a circular, bull’s-eye shape. A small rash normally appears at the location of the tick bite within the first few days of weeks after infection, and it then slowly expands. But it can appear elsewhere on the body, and in 20-30% of cases it’s not observed at all.
In the absence of the rash, Lyme disease can be diagnosed based on any other signs and symptoms, in addition to the individual’s history of tick bites or visits to any high-risk areas. Common symptoms include fatigue, headache, dizziness, fever, joint pain and stiffness, sensitivity to light, and changes in vision. If the infection is not treated early on, sleep disturbances, cognitive dysfunction and other neurological symptoms may also occur as the illness progresses to the chronic stage.
Early Lyme disease can usually be treated successfully with antibiotics. However, if the infection is undiagnosed, the bacteria may travel to other tissues and organs and spread throughout the body. If immunity weakens due to another illness or some environmental factors, the bacteria can flourish and cause the immune system to dysfunction.
Chronic Lyme disease can lead to the neurological disorder neuroborreliosis. Symptoms of neuroborreliosis include memory loss, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, decreased verbal fluency, and depression.
If you’re also wondering “Can Lyme disease damage the respiratory system?”, read on – we’ll cover Lyme disease and the respiratory system, discovering how it might affect your breathing.
1. Flu-Like Symptoms
Lyme disease can be very difficult to diagnose with absolute certainty because its symptoms overlap with various other conditions. It also shares its peak season (April through September) with a number of viral illnesses, such as the West Nile virus and enteroviral infections. Besides the distinctive rash, the first symptoms of Lyme disease tend to be flu-like: chills, fever, headache, fatigue, malaise, and skin sensitivity. Although serious respiratory symptoms are extremely rare, some patients also have a cough and rhinitis.
2. Lyme Carditis
If Lyme disease is left untreated, the bacteria may enter the tissues of the heart. This can interfere with the electrical signals coordinating the normal beating of the heart, which may result in a so-called heart block. Symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe, and include shortness of breath as well as light-headedness, fainting, heart palpitations, and chest pain.
3. Diaphragm Paralysis
Lyme neuroborreliosis has been documented to cause diaphragm paralysis in a few cases. Recovery can take a long time once the illness has progressed to this stage. Intensive antibiotic treatment, combined with noninvasive ventilation, can help alleviate the symptoms.
4. Guillain-Barre Syndrome
Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare autoimmune disorder affecting the peripheral nervous system. The immune system attacks healthy nerve cells, which leads to muscle weakness and, later on, respiratory distress. About two thirds of patients experience some kind of infection before presenting with the symptoms. Although it’s uncommon for this condition to be associated with Lyme disease, prior infection with Borrelia burgdorferi has been noted in at least one case.
Ticks may transmit more than one infection through a single bite. Although Lyme disease itself rarely affects the lungs, there are several other tick-borne pathogens that can cause pulmonary disease. Acute respiratory distress syndrome is a possible complication of babesiosis, which may be a co-infection of Lyme disease. If you discover a rash and also experience any lung symptoms after being bitten by a tick or visiting a forest, moorland, or an area with tall grass, your doctor may consider a differential diagnosis of a tick-borne pulmonary infection. The earlier the illness is recognized, the more effectively it can be treated with an appropriate antibiotic therapy.
What to Do if You Think You’ve Contracted Lyme Disease
If you find a tick on your body, you should remove it immediately. Use fine-point tweezers to grab the tick close to the skin and gently pull it straight upwards. Take care not to twist it, in order to ensure it comes out in one piece, since infection is transmitted via contact with the tick’s blood. Afterwards, clean the area around the bite with rubbing alcohol. Keep the tick in the freezer and take it with you to your medical appointment to aid any diagnosis.
See a doctor as soon as possible after realizing you’ve been bitten by a tick. If you visited any high Lyme-risk areas but you don’t have any symptoms yet, your doctor may suggest that you take a course of oral antibiotics to prevent illness. You must also see a doctor if you don’t recall being bitten by a tick, but develop flu-like symptoms shortly after visiting a high-risk area.