Much of the attention given to Lyme disease currently centres around the diagnosis and treatment of the condition in an acute stage. But what happens if Lyme disease goes untreated? The symptoms of the condition, in its later stage, can be much more severe and debilitating, which means that recovery can be more challenging – even with appropriate treatment. Here’s some information on questions you might have about untreated or chronic Lyme disease.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is an infectious condition caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which was named after an American scientist named Willy Burgdorferi who researched the disease in the early 1980s). The condition is named after a town called Lyme, Connecticut in the US, where numerous people fell ill with similar symptoms of rashes and fatigue.
Lyme disease is most commonly contracted if you’re bitten by a tick that is a Lyme carrier. Common symptoms of acute Lyme disease include:
- Skin rash (often a red, bullseye rash)
- Flu-like symptoms (such as fever, chills, malaise, etc.)
- Headache and stiff neck
- Muscle soreness
- Joint pain
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Sore throat
If the infection starts to spread throughout the body (without antibiotic intervention), you might start to experience additional symptoms, such as vision changes, heart problems like palpitations or chest pain, multiple rashes, or facial paralysis (also known as Bell’s palsy). Typically, early stages of Lyme disease are treated with antibiotics; more significant treatment is needed if the condition is not caught early on and has progressed to chronic Lyme disease.
Many people receive misdiagnoses when they first report their symptoms to their doctor because Lyme disease can mimic symptoms of other conditions like arthritis, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and others.
What are the symptoms of late-stage Lyme disease?
Late-stage Lyme disease is one of the terms used when the condition has become chronic. This is generally after months (or sometimes even years) of the condition going untreated, where the Lyme bacteria has spread throughout the body.
Many patients develop chronic arthritis, as well as additional neurological and cardiac symptoms. These symptoms can also include:
- Arthritis in the joints (sometimes near the point of infection)
- Severe headaches or migraines
- Vertigo or dizziness
- Migrating pains that come and go in joints and tendons
- Stiff, aching neck
- Sleep disturbances (including insomnia)
- Disturbances in heart rhythm
- Mental fogginess and concentration issues
- Numbness in limbs, hands, or feet
- Severe fatigue
Because the infection has spread over time, antibiotics can be less effective; sometimes patients are required to enter hospital for stronger intravenous (IV) antibiotics. There are also cases where people are treated in the early stages of the condition but still do not respond to treatment for some reason. This is also known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (or PTLDS). Researchers don’t have a definitive answer as to why some people develop PTLDS. People suffering from chronic Lyme disease often have significantly worse symptoms that can negatively impact their day-to-day lives.
Can Lyme disease go away on its own?
At this time, there is no research that supports the idea that Lyme disease will just go away on its own if left untreated. In fact, it seems like quite the opposite is true. Without proper intervention and treatment, the infection can spread throughout the body and the brain, causing severe symptoms.
Is Lyme disease fatal?
Unfortunately, in some cases, Lyme disease can indeed be life-threatening. In late-stage Lyme disease, the infection can wreak serious havoc on the body as a whole, but can be especially damaging to the nervous system. In some cases, patients have died of respiratory failure because of the long-term effects the infection has on the nervous system. The infection can also affect other parts of the body (such as the kidneys), which can also turn out to be fatal.
Another serious complication that people can experience is called Lyme carditis. When Lyme bacteria enter the tissues of the heart, carditis can occur; this interferes with the normal movement of electrical signals from the heart’s upper to lower chambers (a process that coordinates the heart’s beating). This results in what doctors call ‘heart block’, which can vary in severity from patient to patient and can progress rapidly. Lyme carditis can be treated with oral or IV antibiotics, and patients sometimes require a temporary pacemaker. There have been some recorded deaths from Lyme carditis as well.
There’s also one other cause of death that can be related to Lyme disease. Because the condition causes emotional issues and can lead to some significant psychological symptoms, Lyme disease patients are at an increased risk of suicide.
When should you get tested for Lyme disease?
In order to make sure that your Lyme disease doesn’t progress, it’s a good idea to get tested as quickly as possible if you think that you may have been bitten by a tick or if you notice some of the above-mentioned symptoms. There are blood tests to test for Lyme disease, and some labs (like BCA-clinic) can help give you an accurate diagnosis. Make sure to bring your concerns to your doctor right away so that they can test for Lyme disease. Getting an accurate diagnosis and then starting with effective treatments right away can mean that you can possibly avoid Lyme disease progressing into a chronic stage.
Leaving Lyme disease untreated can have a serious negative effect on your health, both physically and emotionally. Be sure to pay attention to any symptoms you might be having, as well as making sure to check for ticks on your body if you’ve spent time outdoors. Extra vigilance and taking steps to stay protected from ticks can mean you’re less at risk of contracting Lyme disease and less likely to suffer from the effects of letting the condition go untreated.