Originally published: 06.MAY.2022
Last updated: 27.OCT.2023
Fever, headaches, fatigue, and an unmistakable bulls-eye skin rash, also referred to as an erythema migrans, are all signs associated with Lyme disease. With these symptoms in mind, you might think ‘how does Lyme disease go unnoticed?’ Like many conditions, even detectable symptoms can be missed and without a reliable test, Lyme disease can go both undiagnosed and untreated - which can result in a number of potentially unfavorable side effects.
Some of the most common side effects of untreated Lyme disease can include:
- Chronic joint inflammation
- Neurological symptoms
- Heart rhythm irregularities
See also: The Signs and Symptoms of Lyme Disease
What happens if Lyme disease is left untreated?
Caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread to humans through tick bites. It is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States. In fact, it’s possible that there are around 476,000 cases per year in the U.S alone according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) .
A blood test is required to correctly diagnose a suspected Lyme disease case. Without trustworthy testing, Lyme disease cases can go undetected and it’s possible for people to live with the disease and not realize it - this can cause a number of complications.
Chronic joint inflammation
Chronic joint inflammation may occur in cases of untreated Lyme disease as Borrelia bacteria invade the joints as well as the tissues that line the joints. The body may produce an inflammatory response when the cartilage in the joints becomes damaged.
Lyme disease and Lyme disease-related arthritis often go hand in hand. If you are suffering from Lyme disease, it is likely that you will experience stiffness and pain in the knees, wrists, ankles, hips, and elbows. Most people who go untreated for Lyme disease will end up with swelling localized in the knees.
It is reported that in very rare cases and in the later stages of Lyme disease, Borrelia bacteria may cross the brain barrier. This may happen because, in the time period that the Lyme disease has gone untreated, the bacteria has continuously replicated and become more powerful. This can lead to neurological symptoms such as numbness, pain, weakness, Bell's palsy, visual disturbances, and meningitis symptoms.
It has been reported that Lyme disease may cause cognitive dysfunction, by cause of neurological symptoms but as of yet, this is unproven.
Heart rhythm irregularities
Lyme disease may develop into Lyme carditis in an instance where Borrelia bacteria enters the tissues of the heart. “This can interfere with the normal movement of electrical signals from the heart’s upper to lower chambers, a process that coordinates the beating of the heart”, according to the CDC, “The result is something physicians call ‘heart block,’ which can be mild, moderate, or severe." In saying that, Lyme carditis is very rare and only occurs in approximately 1% of cases reported to the CDC.
Most individuals with Lyme disease respond well to antibiotics and have a full recovery. In a small percentage of individuals, symptoms may continue or recur, requiring additional antibiotic treatment.
Can Lyme disease go away on its own?
Although the signs and symptoms associated with Lyme disease may clear after a few weeks, without the help of antibiotics, treatment with antibiotics is crucial to avoid any potential damage in the future.
Lyme disease occurs in stages, so in order to avoid it progressing into the later stages, correct treatment is a must.
What are the treatment options for Lyme disease?
Antibiotics are typically used to treat Lyme disease. These antibiotics can either be taken orally or through an injection. The sooner Lyme disease is diagnosed, the quicker recovery will be, according to Mayo Clinic .
Some of the most common types of treatment include:
Oral antibiotics are typically the standard treatment for Lyme disease - this usually involves a 14-21 day course. Some of the antibiotics commonly used for oral treatment include doxycycline, amoxicillin, or cefuroxime axetil.
Antibiotics may be administered via injection if the disease is in a later stage. Late-stage treatment can last many months as seen in other infections as well. In addition to intravenous antibiotics, patients being treated for late-stage Lyme disease, often receive supportive therapies.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded several studies on the treatment of Lyme disease that show most people recover when treated within a few weeks of antibiotics taken by mouth. Those who are experiencing symptoms after their treatment are said to experience PTLDS (Post Lyme Disease Syndrome), these symptoms tend to include:
- Muscle aches
What is late-stage Lyme disease?
Also referred to as chronic Lyme disease, late-stage Lyme disease is what occurs months, and sometimes years, after the initial Lyme disease infection if not treated.
How long can you live with chronic Lyme disease?
If Lyme disease isn’t diagnosed in the early stages, the bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, can begin to spread throughout the body - away from the site of the initial tick bite. When the disease progresses to this stage, it can be treated with a course of antibiotics - though, of course, treatment may differ.
Chronic Lyme disease symptoms may include:
- Severe headaches
- Joint pain and swelling
- Disturbances in heart rhythm
- Brain disorders
- Short-term memory loss
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mental fogginess
- Problems following conversations
Can you live with Lyme disease and not know it?
One of the only reliable ways to know whether or not you have Lyme disease is through a lab test. This means that if symptoms go unnoticed, it is possible to live with the disease for weeks, months, or even years and not realize it. This is why it’s crucial to get tested if you suspect you could have contracted Lyme disease.