I'm A Functional MD & These Sneaky Signs Can Signal A Tickborne Illness
Here's the thing about tickborne illnesses: According to functional medicine doctor Kenneth Bock, M.D., they can cover different organ systems, and so patients often present myriad symptoms. "It can look like anything," he shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, which poses a problem in clinical settings: If a patient comes in with a laundry list of complaints, some professionals may resort to a psychological diagnosis (especially if those said symptoms are, in fact, psychological, which we'll get into later).
However, says Bock, "If you listen, and you look, and you think hard...these tickborne diseases can cause this myriad of complaints." Meaning, it's important not to rule out the possibility of a tickborne illness, even if you don't necessarily live in a hotbed state. Below, he explains some of the most common signs he has seen.
"It can range from skin rashes to heart palpitations, shortness of breath, brain fog, numbness, tingling, burning, dysesthesias (which is pain), and also general fatigue and headaches," Bock says.
He also mentions that some ticks can carry Bartonella bacteria, which can "give you these purple-ish, reddish stretch marks" in uncommon areas you wouldn't typically have stretch marks—like in the middle of the back or behind the knee. (We should note: There is little evidence to suggest the transmission of Bartonella from ticks to humans directly; most of the data shows that the bacteria can be transmitted from ticks to pets to a person during a scratch.)
He continues that Babesia, another tickborne illness that often goes hand-in-hand with Lyme disease, can cause symptoms like fever, chills, sweats, and air hunger (aka, feeling like you can't get enough air).
The purpose of listing these symptoms isn't to scare you—Bock emphasizes that when people point out their multiple symptoms, he takes tickborne illnesses into account. "Rather than [saying], 'Oh, the person has air hunger, so they're just anxious,' these are clues to some of the tickborne illnesses."
We mentioned brain fog, but Bock says tickborne illnesses can manifest as a host of psychological symptoms—sometimes for younger folks, the only symptoms at all are psychological.
"The thing about kids and adolescents is that sometimes the only symptoms of tickborne disease are neuropsychiatric," Bock explains. "All you see is anxiety, or OCD, or panic attacks, or depression, and sometimes rage." In fact, studies show that a portion of Lyme disease patients can experience explosive anger and aggressiveness (commonly referred to as "Lyme rage").
All that to say: It's important we don't rule out tickborne illnesses, even if someone only presents psychological symptoms. "They can carry a diagnosis of mood disorder, [like] anxiety and panic attacks, but if they have a tickborne disease, they'll never get better. All the psychotropics in the world and all the therapy will not [help them] get better," says Bock.
Tickborne illnesses can be scary—understandably so. Again, explaining all of these symptoms is not to spook you into thinking you have a tickborne illness. But if you present myriad symptoms, it's important to get to the root of the issue and make sure a tickborne illness is not the driver. "The key is to recognize that they exist," notes Bock.