Chronic Lyme disease: Everything you need to know
Lyme disease comes from a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. Ticks, most commonly the deer tick, spread Lyme disease. Doctors usually treat the infection with antibiotics.
With treatment, Lyme disease typically clears up quickly for most people. However, some people continue to have symptoms of Lyme disease following their treatment. Doctors refer to this as chronic Lyme disease.
Keep reading for more information on chronic Lyme disease, including the symptoms and the treatment options.
People with chronic Lyme disease continue to have symptoms of Lyme disease despite receiving treatment for the initial infection.
Chronic Lyme disease is also known as posttreatment Lyme disease syndrome.
According to 2016 research, about 10–20% of people who receive treatment for Lyme disease develop chronic symptoms.
People get Lyme disease if an infected tick bites them. Researchers are not sure why some people develop chronic Lyme disease, but they have several theories:
- Some of the bacteria may survive the treatment and continue to cause symptoms.
- Lyme disease may cause an autoimmune response in a similar way to other diseases. Examples include strep throat, which can lead to rheumatic fever, and chlamydia, which has an association with Reiter’s syndrome. When this happens, the immune system continues to be active even after treatment destroys the bacteria, causing persistent symptoms.
- Symptoms may be a result of other causes that do not relate to the original Lyme disease.
The symptoms of chronic Lyme disease are similar to those of the original infection. They include:
- trouble concentrating
- joint pain, particularly in the elbows, knees, and shoulders
- decreased short-term memory
- speech problems
- restlessness when trying to sleep
- muscle aches
- neck pain
- lower back pain
There is no set test to check for chronic Lyme disease. Initially, a doctor is likely to use an antibody test to look for the antibodies that the body produces to fight the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease.
Two standard tests are the Western blot test and the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test.
However, a doctor may be able to test for damage using other tests, depending on a person’s symptoms. Some tests that a doctor may try include:
- a spinal tap to measure cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)
- a brain MRI scan to look for neurological changes
- an electrocardiogram (EKG) or echocardiogram to evaluate heart functioning
There is currently no cure for chronic Lyme disease. People with the condition typically get better with time, although it may take several months. In most cases, a doctor will focus the treatment plan on managing pain and other symptoms.
The doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain relievers, or they might prescribe medications to treat muscle soreness.
Although some doctors may recommend continuing to use antibiotics, experts have not reached a consensus on the effectiveness and safety of this practice.
For example, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases note that several clinical trials found no benefit in continuing antibiotic therapy in people with chronic Lyme disease.
A person should see their doctor if they get a tick bite as deer ticks and black-legged ticks can carry Lyme disease. If a person is unsure about the type of tick that bit them, they can bring it with them in a sealed container.
The symptoms of Lyme disease can take some time to develop. Sometimes, a person may not notice the tick, and it will fall off their body before they have any symptoms.
It is also possible that a doctor will instruct a person to wait a month before undergoing a test for Lyme disease.
During this time, a person should look for early signs of Lyme disease. These include:
- stiffness in the neck
- a red, growing bull’s-eye rash at the site of the bite
- swollen lymph nodes
- fatigue, chills, or a general feeling of illness called malaise
- muscle or joint pain
- joint swelling
People should see a doctor about these early symptoms of Lyme disease. It is possible that starting antibiotics at this stage could reduce the risk of chronic symptoms developing.
Chronic Lyme disease refers to lingering symptoms after a person has received treatment for the infection. A person with chronic Lyme disease will experience symptoms similar to those of the original infection.
A person should speak to a doctor if they know that a tick has bitten them. They should also watch for early symptoms of Lyme disease and let their doctor know if any develop.
Research into chronic Lyme disease is ongoing. While there is currently no cure, a doctor can recommend the latest treatment options.