NOV 09, 2018 9:15 AM PST

Lyme Disease And The Heart

WRITTEN BY: Abbie Arce

In small-town New England, everyone knows the unique characteristic symptom of Lyme disease. A bulls-eye pattern rash around a tiny tick bite, infection ground zero. The rash, called erythema migrans, signifies a recent tick bite and its resultant infection. Subsequent symptoms include joint pain, headache, chills, body ache, and fever. The rash itself may appear as many as thirty days after infection or in as little as three days. The red ring slowly expands over the course of a few days and can grow to as large as 12 inches across. The rash itself generally isn't painful or itchy but may be warm to the touch. 

Deer ticks carry the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi which causes Lyme disease the most common vector-borne illness in North America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 95% of the confirmed Lyme cases reported in 2006 came from just 14 states. These infection hotbeds are mostly located in the Northeast United States with the greatest number of cases occurring in Connecticut, Delaware, and Maine respectively. Today, Lyme is becoming a worldwide concern as it mutates into a pandemic.

While it is widely known that Lyme disease can cause flu-like symptoms, many are unaware that it can also affect the heart. Although less common, occurring in about 5 to 8% of Lyme patients, Lyme carditis is a serious and even potentially fatal symptom of Lyme infection. 

Lyme carditis occurs when bacteria from a tick bite enters the heart issue. Once in the heart, the bacteria interfere with the electrical signals between the upper and lower heart chambers. Although Lyme carditis may be asymptomatic, those who do experience symptoms report shortness of breath, lightheadedness, heart palpitations and even fainting. This disruption in the hearts normal function can cause what is called a heart block which can stop the heart completely, resulting in a fatal cardiac incident. 

Early diagnosis is essential in reducing the impact of Lyme disease. Those who suspect they may have Lyme disease should see a doctor as soon as possible even if they don’t remember getting bitten. If caught early, many people fully recover after the administration of antibiotics. Some though, who were not treated for Lyme in its early stages may have continued episodes of Lyme symptoms throughout their lives. 

Interestingly, athletes may be at higher risk of severe heart complications as their well-conditioned hearts may initially mask Lyme carditis symptoms. Also, athletic persons are often at greater risk of Lyme disease as their active lifestyles expose them to the outdoors more frequently. As such, it is recommended that exercisers check their bodies, hair and clothing thoroughly after each run, kayak, walk, ride or hike outside to avoid the tick bites known to cause Lyme infection.

While Lyme disease is diagnosed by blood test, Lyme carditis is diagnosed with an EKG. Treatment for both conditions generally consist of oral antibiotics, but in severe cases, IV antibiotics may be necessary. Pacemakers may be implanted temporarily to protect against a heart attack in Lyme carditis patients. Occasionally, heart concerns remain after a course of antibiotics leaving pacemakers to be placed permanently in about 30% of Lyme carditis patients. 

It is recommended that those hoping to enjoy the outdoors, particularly in places where Lyme disease is prevalent, take the necessary precautions before heading out. These include using tick repellent on clothing and skin. Also, wearing protective clothing like full-length pants tucked into high profile socks can help reduce risk. With these tips in mind, anyone can enjoy New England's stunning natural spaces, Lyme free. 

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and PreventionNational Center for Biotechnology Information

About the Author
  • Abbie is an AFAA certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with an interest in all things health-science. She has recently graduated with her BS in Applied Sport and Exercise Science from Barry University in Miami. Next, she intends to earn an MPH with a focus in Epidemiology.
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