Dr Drew Sinatra illustration by Mina Tocalini

Lyme Disease Misdiagnosis 

The pandemic has created a hypervigilance on important flu-like markers such as sore throat, headaches, chills, fatigue and fever, the same symptoms that Dr. Drew Sinatra, a naturopathic doctor with Healthy Directions, says could be the first signs of Lyme disease.

“We are all spending a lot more time outdoors this summer to maintain social distancing recommendations with the goal to reduce our risk against the threat of COVID-19, which is important. Now we just need to be vigilant about another threat that thrives in wooded and grassy areas, known as the ‘great masquerader,’ or Lyme disease,” said Sinatra, a board-certified and California-licensed practicing naturopathic doctor who holds a doctorate in naturopathic medicine from Bastyr University, America’s top naturopathic and complementary medical school. “The symptoms of the flu and Lyme disease are very similar, however the biggest obstacle with Lyme disease is that more than 70% of diagnostic tests come back negative – even if someone is positive. So, unfortunately people often go untreated for years, until the Lyme disease symptoms become debilitating.”

The CDC estimates that more than 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year in the United States. Of these infections, an unknown number will result in a chronic, difficult-to-treat illness. Lyme disease affects all age groups, with particularly high occurrences among children, especially ages 5-14, and adults 45-64. Lyme disease is a bacterial disease that usually presents itself in its early stages with flu-like symptoms such as sore throat, headaches, chills, fatigue and fever. If it’s not caught and treated early, Lyme disease symptoms can progress to include muscle aches, cognitive dysfunction, neurological complaints, migratory joint pain and generalized chronic fatigue. In fact, Lyme disease can mimic more than 300 diseases. Patients can have symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS), or worse, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), but actually have Lyme disease.

“Our previous understanding was that Lyme disease was transmitted exclusively through tick bites. However, now we suspect that Lyme and other microorganisms can potentially be transmitted through sexual intercourse, breast milk, mosquito bites, fleabites and blood transfusions,” said Sinatra. “Lyme disease can even be transmitted to a fetus, although babies born with Lyme disease often don’t show symptoms until puberty, later in adulthood, or not at all.”

The more obvious sign of Lyme disease is a “bull’s eye” rash, with a red center surrounded with concentric rings. But Sinatra says this visible sign only develops if a person contracts Lyme disease through a tick bite, and unfortunately, it doesn’t develop with every tick bite. In fact, only 50% of patients with Lyme disease report a “bull’s eye” rash. To make matters worse, not all tick bites cause a “bull’s eye” rash, but present themselves with a red irritated rash, which is often misdiagnosed.

If you suspect that you have Lyme disease, Sinatra says to ask your doctor to conduct a blood enzyme immunoassay (EIA) or blood immunofluorescence assay (IFA). If either test comes back positive, your doctor can request a Western blot test, however the majority of these tests can produce a false negative even if Lyme disease is present. Sinatra says it’s very important to seek out a Lyme disease specialist who can quickly recognize Lyme disease symptoms. Lyme literate doctors are specialists in treating complex chronic disease. The International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society is a well-recognized organization that can help recommend a Lyme disease specialist in your area.

“You want a doctor who is going to combine the best of both conventional and alternative medicine,” said Sinatra. “Killing the microorganisms with pharmaceutical or herbal antibiotics is only one piece of the healing puzzle when it comes to Lyme disease treatment. Maximizing detoxification pathways and using targeted immune supportive therapies can help people recover faster. If you identify a tick attachment and develop a bull’s eye rash, then a 4-week course of antibiotics is generally enough to eliminate the infection. However, if you’ve been infected with Lyme disease for a long time, which is the case for the majority of Lyme disease patients, treatment can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, and sometimes for longer. Some patients, however, begin to feel better immediately after beginning treatment.”

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