Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness that occurs when a tick infected with the borrelia bacteria latches onto a human host and feeds on their blood. During feeding, the bacteria makes its way into the bloodstream, where it spreads across the entire body and causes widespread symptoms. An initial Lyme disease infection feels much like the flu and has non-specific symptoms such as muscle aches, fever, chills, headache, and fatigue.
Lyme disease can only be treated using antibiotics, but sometimes even treatment does not rid the body of the bacteria. If the borrelia bacteria manages to evade detection, it can hide in tissues and cause a condition known as chronic Lyme disease. When the bacteria stays in the body for a long time, Lyme can sporadically flare up in between periods of remission. So what does a Lyme flare-up feel like? And can you prevent it from happening?
Can Lyme disease have flare-ups?
In short, yes – Lyme disease generally comes with flare-ups. One initial flare-up of symptoms can occur at the beginning of treatment and is referred to as a Herxheimer reaction. This reaction occurs when the dying bacteria releases certain toxin-like substances that cause symptoms to reappear.
Other types of flare-ups can occur long after treatment, and the existing symptoms that a person experiences with Lyme disease may recur or worsen. When flare-ups occur in someone with chronic Lyme disease, it’s typically because they haven’t sought treatment for more than a year after an initial infection, or because they had been previously prescribed steroids prior to getting diagnosed with Lyme disease.
What are common Lyme disease flare-up symptoms?
When the symptoms of Lyme disease return in a flare-up, they will be similar to those that appeared during the initial infection. In some cases, the symptoms can be worse. Some patients with chronic Lyme disease flare-ups may also experience new symptoms that weren’t present during the initial infection stage of the disease.
The many symptoms that occur during a Lyme disease flare-up can include:
- Cognitive issues, such as a poor memory and a lack of concentration
- An extreme sensitivity to bright lights, hot or cold temperatures, and certain noises
- Stiffness in the muscles
- Mood changes, such as becoming more irritable or experiencing increased or new depression or anxiety
- Poor quality of sleep that results in daytime tiredness
- Issues with balance and dizziness
- Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- Pain in the muscles that can be localized or across the entire body
- Vision issues, such as blurred vision
- Body pain that does not go away
Not everyone with a Lyme disease flare-up will experience all these symptoms, as each case is unique.
What triggers a Lyme disease flare-up?
In some cases, a Lyme disease flare-up can be triggered by outside factors. For people with chronic Lyme disease, each trigger will be different because the body reacts differently to the borrelia bacteria.
Some common triggers for a Lyme disease flare-up can include:
- Emotional stress driven by grief, an accident, or a big life change such as divorce
- Physical stress on the body, such as a surgery or physical injury
- Other types of infections, such as cold or flu
- General exhaustion
- Eating a diet high in processed sugars and alcohol
- For those who menstruate, having a menstrual period could trigger a flare-up
- Not getting enough good-quality sleep
- Changes to routine or travelling
- Treatment changes
While many of these triggers cannot be avoided, some are preventable and can help you reduce the risk of having a Lyme disease flare-up.
Can you prevent a Lyme disease flare-up?
The best way to prevent a Lyme disease flare-up is by avoiding contracting Lyme disease in the first place. This can be done by always taking precautions against ticks and checking for ticks after spending time in wooded areas. Since Lyme disease is incredibly difficult to treat, and many people are often unaware that they even have it until it has had time to wreak havoc across the entire body, it’s especially important to avoid contracting the infection where possible.
For those who have already contracted and been diagnosed with Lyme disease, getting proper treatment is the best way to deal with, manage, and prevent Lyme flare-ups. Some tips for preventing Lyme disease from flaring up include:
- Identify your triggers by listening to your body
- Reduce stress levels by practicing stress management techniques
- Continue with proper Lyme disease treatment
- Practice good sleep hygiene so you have the best chance at getting good-quality sleep
- Avoid the consumption of sugar and alcohol
- Rest if you don’t feel well
- Find a mental health provider that may help you cope with the symptoms of the disease and prevent any mental changes from worsening
What do Lyme disease flare-ups feel like?
The aforementioned symptoms of a Lyme disease flare-up can feel debilitating. The widespread pain, exhaustion, and general feeling of illness can be difficult to cope with, but there are things you can do to help manage the symptoms and reduce flare-ups. Speak with your doctor to explore further treatment and management options for your Lyme disease.
Featured image by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash