Flu or Lyme Disease?

by lmatthews on December 5, 2012

lyme disease or flu bumper year for influenza 2012

Lyme disease and flu can be very similar in early stages.

This year’s flu season is going to be a bad one, according to reports released from the CDC, but how can you tell if it is flu or Lyme disease causing your aches and pains? The early symptoms of Lyme disease mirror influenza symptoms and with November’s spike in flu cases and the continuing spread of ticks in a warmer climate it is increasingly likely that misdiagnosis occurs.

Early Start to the Flu Season

This is the earliest start to the flu season since 2003-2004 according to the Director of the Centers for Disease Control, Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH. Those places hardest hit so far have been in the south-central portion of the United States, an area where the relative rarity of Lyme disease may contribute to confusion over symptoms. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas are seeing a particularly high number of influenza cases, as are Missouri and Georgia. “[with] this year’s early start and the specific influenza subtypes circulating, this could be a bad year,” Dr. Frieden stated.

Is it Lyme or Influenza?

People who have received this year’s flu vaccination but who develop a flu-like illness may have one of the new strains of influenza, or Lyme disease or an entirely different infection. It is important to remember that not all cases of Lyme disease cause a rash, although many do and many physicians, particularly those inexperienced with the infection may expect a Lyme disease rash and be reticent about diagnosing Lyme disease without seeing one.

Lyme Disease and Flu – Seasonal Illnesses

The initial infection with Lyme disease may be asymptomatic, with joint pain, heart problems, cognitive difficulties, fatigue or other symptoms of disseminated Lyme disease appearing several months later. Lyme disease season is generally viewed as April to October, although ticks may remain active throughout the year in warmer areas and those frequently outdoors and exposed to tick-friendly environments should remain wary at all times.

Lyme Disease – A Year-Round Problem

One of the main reasons for the seasonal variation in Lyme disease cases is simply that more people venture outdoors in summer, as well as the fact that ticks are more actively seeking a new host at this time. There is no absolute cut-off point in November when new Lyme disease cases cease to arise and influenza takes over as the only cause of flu-like symptoms.

Check for the Lyme Disease Rash


Those who do develop flu-like symptoms, such as aches and pains, a fever, fatigue, chills and so forth, may wish to check for any signs of erythema migrans, the Lyme disease rash. Ticks favor certain places on the body that can be hard to reach or see, meaning that many rashes are missed. Checking behind the knees, between the toes, in the armpits or on the back, neck or scalp can uncover a previously unnoticed rash. Getting a partner to help check can help, as can using a mirror. As the Lyme disease rash is so distinctive it can be a huge help in overcoming the diagnostic hurdles so infamous with the infection.

What to Watch out for: Lyme Disease or Flu?

Where early symptoms of Lyme disease go unrecognized, or misdiagnosed as influenza, the primary illness will usually go away of its own accord within a few weeks. Other symptoms may then occur, including a bull’s-eye rash at multiple locations, joint pain, and disparate effects that vary from person to person. A constitutional weakness in any one organ or bodily system can predispose patients to specific symptoms of Lyme disease, such as Lyme carditis or Lyme arthritis.

Neurological Lyme Disease Symptoms

flu symptoms or lyme

Even the gastrointestinal effects of Lyme disease can mimic flu.

Facial palsy (Bell’s palsy) is one possible symptom of Lyme disease, where one side of the face becomes paralyzed. Even this symptom may go away without treatment, or permanent nerve damage can occur, or relapsing symptoms. Other nerve problems, such as pain and paraesthesia in the arms, hands, head and neck may arise. In cases where the neck becomes stiff and the patient has an intense aversion to light it is important to seek immediate medical attention as what may start out as a flu-like illness could in fact be meningitis, a potentially fatal condition.

Lyme Disease – The Great Mimic

There are significant difficulties when diagnosing Lyme disease, largely because many of the symptoms of each stage of Lyme disease mirror other conditions so closely. Arthritic symptoms may simply be put down to age, cognitive symptoms to stress or overwork, and flu-like symptoms to the viruses being passed around at this time of year. As symptoms of untreated Lyme disease can come and go it may be that a patient, and oftentimes their physician, believes they have suffered from a variety of unconnected illnesses, rather than a single overarching condition.

Chronic Lyme or Flu?

Most cases of Lyme disease can, when caught early, be treated effectively with a short course of antibiotics, leaving no lasting problems. The longer Lyme disease is left to spread around the body the more damage can be done, creating an opportunity for permanent nerve and tissue damage and chronic symptoms. Accurately diagnosing flu and Lyme disease may mean the difference between a few weeks of laying low and a lifetime of suffering so make sure to watch symptoms closely and consult a physician if in doubt.

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