May 22, 2012 at 12:16 PM ET
Patients suffering from Lyme disease often complain that the crushing fatigue, joint pain and neurological symptoms are not taken seriously.
That could change with the bacterial infection’s link to the JPMorgan Chase’s multi-billion dollar financial meltdown.
Amid the finger-pointing for the bank’s trading loss, a recent New York Times story noted that senior banker Ina Drew, the executive most often blamed for the bank’s financial meltdown, had suffered Lyme disease since 2010.
Drew lost so many days at work after contracting Lyme that she didn’t realize her underlings were running amok and betting billions on bad investments, the newspaper reported.
While any chronic illness might have had a similar effect, experts say that Lyme can indeed wreak havoc in an individual’s life, especially if it’s not caught and treated early. The problem is, many patients – and even doctors – don’t know Lyme’s early signs and symptoms. What's worse, the tick that carries the bug can often bite you without your ever noticing it.
“If you catch it early and give the appropriate antibiotics, then there’s a relatively quick recovery,” said Dr. Andrew Nowalk, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh at the University of Pittsburgh. “If the disease progresses, then it becomes more serious.”
The longer Lyme lingers in your system, the worse the outcome, Nowalk explained. As months go by, the bug can inflame joints and even cause mental disorders, if not treated.
Many experts now think that people who continue to have symptoms after long courses of antibiotics aren’t suffering from an ongoing infection, but rather, are dealing with the damage wrought by the bug before it was stopped.
The third stage of Lyme is very much like an autoimmune disease, with the body’s immune system attacking joints, brain and nerves, said Dr. Otto Yang, professor of infectious diseases, David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“This type of damage is often irreversible,” Yang said. “These stages are very similar to those of syphilis, which is caused by a cousin of the bacteria causing Lyme disease.”
Which is why nobody should be surprised that people with long undiagnosed Lyme end up with lingering problems.
“Just like syphilis, you can have it for years,” Nowalk said. “You give an antibiotic and you get a cure 100 percent of the time. But nobody is surprised if you end up with symptoms from syphilis for the rest of your life because it damages so many organs so dramatically. It’s the same concept with Lyme.”
The main protection against Lyme infection is to know the symptoms.
While it would be nice if you could count on spotting the deer ticks that carry the disease, that’s unlikely, said Nowalk. “The tick is well designed to avoid your notice,” he explained. “It is extraordinarily small -- smaller than the point of a pen -- when it’s not engorged. And it has a little anesthetic in its bite so you don’t feel it.”
Nowalk suggests dousing yourself -- and your kids -- with insect repellant before going for a walk in woods and fields frequented by deer.
The blacklegged ticks need to be attached at least 36 hours before they can transmit the disease, which is why it’s so important to check for them promptly after being outside.
If you or your kids develop a bulls-eye rash – which may gradually expand over several days -- that’s a clear sign of Lyme infection, Nowalk said. But many people either don’t get a rash or don’t see it. So you need to be tuned in to other early symptoms, like muscle stiffness and fatigue.
“Unfortunately a lot of the symptoms of Lyme sound like a really bad case of the flu,” Nowalk said. “You feel really tired, you’ve got swollen glands, headaches, a low-grade fever. You might also have muscle weakness and big swollen joints.”
As we enter high Lyme season -- a warm, wet spring could make it worse than usual, experts suggest -- the disease seems to be on the rise in some parts of the country.
“Our own hospital has seen a 10-fold increase in cases from 2008 to 2011,” Nowalk said of western Pennsylvania. “It worries me a little when we start seeing this many cases ... I hope it’s not making its merry way to other parts of the country.”
Just because you’ve had Lyme once doesn’t mean you can’t get it again, Nowalk warns. If you live in an area where there are lots of deer – and hence lots of deer ticks -- you need to be alert for the symptoms and realize that not every doctor will be as educated about the disease as you might like. Some may even not know you can get it more than once.
“You know, the American dream is often about a big house in a nice suburban area with a deck from which you can watch the deer idyllically trotting around,” Nowalk said. “To me, that’s become a nightmare scenario: all those deer carrying ticks that are jumping off the deer and making their way to you.”