Lyme disease is an infection that is caused by a spirochete (a type of microorganism) called Borrelia burgdorferi. It is transmitted to humans by the bite of a deer tick.

The disease has a strong geographical incidence, being highly concentrated in the Northeast United States and now also has a high incidence in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Lyme disease was first discovered in Old Lyme, Connecticut in 1975. It can start with a characteristic “bull’s eye” rash, in which there is a central spot that is surrounded by clear skin that is then ringed by an expanding rash. It can also appear just as an expanding rash.

This rash usually starts within days of the tick bite. Eye problems can occur along with this rash in the first phase of the disease. This includes red eyes that can look like full-blown pink eye, along with eyelid swelling. It also can produce iritis or uveitis, which include sensitivity to light and inflammation inside the eye.

The second phase of the disease usually starts within a few weeks of the tick bite and this occurs because the spirochete gets into the blood stream. This stage often has rashes starting away from the original bite site. It can also produce joint pain, weakness, and inflammation in several organs including the heart, spleen, liver and kidneys.  

There are also several ways it can affect your eyes. It can cause inflammation in your cornea (keratitis), retina (retinitis), optic nerve (optic neuritis), uveitis, inflammation in the jelly-like substance that fills the back of the eye called vitreous (vitritis) and the muscles that move your eye around (orbital myositis). It can also affect the eye if it causes problems with the nerve that controls your eyelid muscles so that your eye will not close properly (Bell’s palsy).

There is a third phase of the disease that is caused by long-term persistent infection.  This phase can create multiple neurologic problems and can appear very similar to the presentation of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). The eyes can show any of the same signs as phase two, but the most common presentation is persistent keratitis. Keratitis symptoms are an inflamed cornea, often accompanied by significant pain, light sensitivity, a gritty feeling, and sight impairment.

The diagnosis is made through observation of the presenting symptoms, being in an area where there are significant numbers of the disease-carrying ticks, and a blood test that can confirm the diagnosis.  

The symptoms and signs of Lyme disease can mimic many other problems, so it is important to keep Lyme disease in mind if you are having multiple problems involving different organs and you know or have any suspicion that you may have had a tick bite while you were in areas where the disease is prevalent.

Article contributed by Dr. Brian Wnorowski, M.D.

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