One of the main reasons why Lyme disease can be so hard to treat is because, within the first 30 days or so of contraction, it tends to mimic more common illnesses like influenza. As certified nurse practitioner Joyce Knestrick, PhD, explains, “within one week of infection, half of the people with Lyme disease experience symptoms commonly associated with the flu like… dizziness.”
When left untreated for several weeks, Lyme disease can even spread to your eyes. Thankfully, the University of Illinois College of Medicine notes that “involvement of the eye is uncommon in Lyme disease,” but the experts still warn that “inflammation of the eye may develop.”
When the bacteria that causes Lyme disease enters the heart tissue, it causes what is known as Lyme carditis. According to the CDC, symptoms of Lyme carditis include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and chest pain—and though it’s usually treatable by antibiotics, the CDC notes that between 1985 and 2018, there were nine reported cases of Lyme carditis that were ultimately fatal.
Because there is still so much to learn about Lyme disease—it was only first recognized as its own condition in 1975—doctors are still continuing to diagnose patients with it based on previously unknown symptoms.
For instance, Liegner notes that one of the first Lyme disease patients he encountered in the late ’80s presented to him with “a cerebellar syndrome where she had difficulty walking, her speech was uncoordinated, and her movements were uncoordinated.” Today there are several studies on Lyme disease’s impact on the cerebellum, and doctors who specialize in Lyme disease know to look out for these related symptoms when screening for the disease.
According to specialty hospital Massachusetts Eye and Ear, approximately 5 percent of Lyme patients develop some form of facial weakness, or facial palsy, categorized by either one or both sides of the face drooping. Though this looks similar to Bell’s palsy, the former is caused by a bacterial infection, while the latter is the result of a virus.
Similar to speech impairment, in many cases, Lyme disease can cause confusion, memory loss, and brain fog. As the American Lyme Disease Foundation explains, “these [symptoms] are the effects of chemicals produced by the body in response to an infection or inflammation.”
The longer it takes for Lyme disease to get diagnosed, the worse a person’s symptoms are. Case in point: According to The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy, people with late-stage Lyme disease can experience “pain, numbness, or weakness in the limbs,” which can be debilitating.