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Lyme Disease and the Eyes: Plus New Research for Better Diagnosis

The hiking, boating, and camping season is here! With the Adirondack Mountains to the north, the Catskill Mountains to the south, and the Green Mountain National Forest to the east, the Capital Region is surrounded by fantastic wilderness to explore. But this also means we are, unfortunately, surrounded by ticks and the presence of Lyme disease, which results from a bacterial infection transmitted by a tick bite.

Ticks infest white-tailed deer and white-footed mice, and humans are exposed to the disease when they come in contact with an area where these two animals live, like upstate New York. The risk of being bitten occurs when a person’s bare arms or legs come into contact with leaves and grass on which the ticks linger.

Only a minority of tick bites leads to Lyme disease, and symptoms can include rash, fatigue, fever, and flu-like symptoms, and, for about 20 percent of people who contract Lyme disease, meningitis or neurologic disease can also develop between three weeks to several months after being bitten.

Lyme disease also has the potential to affect the eyes. In the early stages, Lyme disease can cause conjunctivitis (pink eye), floaters, and sensitivity to light.

In later stages of the disease, inflammation of the eye may develop including:

  • Uveitis: an inflammation of the uvea, the middle part of the eye. Symptoms include redness, pain, light sensitivity, blurred vision, and dark floating spots in the field of vision.
  • Optic neuritis: an inflammation of the fibers that cover the optic nerve. Symptoms of the disease include pain in the eye, inability to see color, and vision loss.
  • Keratitis: an inflammation of the cornea. Keratitis may cause pain in the eye, light sensitivity, tearing, and blurred vision.
  • Retinal vasculitis: an inflammation of the blood vessels of the retina. Common signs of this disorder are painless, gradual vision loss.

While there are many symptoms that can develop because of Lyme disease, it’s estimated that about 50 percent of patients do not remember being bitten by a tick or remember an initial rash, which is the most common and immediate symptom. Because of this, many people do not know they’ve contracted Lyme disease and therefore don’t get treated right away or know what other more serious potential symptoms to be aware of, such as symptoms of meningitis or eye health problems.

The current blood tests used for diagnosis date back to 1994 and involve looking for antibodies to the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes the infection, in the blood. However, the blood tests are known to have several shortcomings, including that the tests work best several weeks after the initial infection because the body has had time to develop antibodies to the bacterium. And this delay in diagnosis allows unwanted time for other more serious symptoms to develop. The blood tests also cannot distinguish between an active infection, past infection, or reinfection, which is pertinent information for doctors in how to treat.

But promising research has been recently published suggesting that new reliable methods for diagnosis may be just around the corner. An article titled “Direct Diagnostic Tests for Lyme Disease” in the Clinical Infectious Diseases academic journal points to new direct-detection methods that appear achievable and could potentially be put into use very soon, as they are already effectively being utilized for other infections. These new diagnostic methods would provide doctors and patients with more comprehensive information and could be done much sooner after a tick bite or infection, speeding up the diagnosis and treatment process and preventing more serious complications from developing.

If you think you’ve been bitten by a tick and are also experiencing signs and symptoms of Lyme disease contact your doctor right away as a treatment for Lyme disease is more effective if begun early.

If you’ve already been diagnosed with Lyme disease, it’s important to schedule an appointment with your eye doctor for a comprehensive eye exam, as well, to check for inflammation caused by the disease. With early treatment, vision loss can very often be avoided. You can give us a call to schedule an appointment at 518-777-2777 or visit myoccr.com