Photo: James Gathany / Associated Press
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Summer has officially started, and with the season comes one of Connecticut’s biggest health scourges — Lyme disease. But this year some experts are worried there could be increased confusion around the illness, as it carries many of the same symptoms as COVID-19.
“The symptoms are very similar,” said Dr. Zane Saul, chief of infectious disease at Bridgeport Hospital. “The only difference is that you don’t get the respiratory symptoms with Lyme that you get with COVID.”
Lyme disease, which is caused by the bite of an infected tick, can cause such symptoms as muscle aches, headaches, fatigue, fever and chills, which are also warning signs of COVID-19. In addition to the lack of respiratory symptoms, the other major difference is that some Lyme disease sufferers get a distinctive rash shaped like a bull’s eye.
“But not everyone with Lyme disease gets that,” Saul pointed out.
Lyme disease gets its name from the southeast Connecticut town, where it was spotted in a cluster of children and adults in 1975. An average of 2,718 Lyme disease cases are reported each year to the state Department of Public Health.
Much like COVID-19, Lyme disease causes an inflammation response in the body, said Eva Sapi, director of the Lyme Disease Program at the University of New Haven. That’s why the two illnesses have many of the same symptoms, she said.
“It’s scary,” Sapi said. “You can very easily think you have COVID,” when it turns out you have Lyme disease. And, she added, as Lyme disease ramps up, it’s possible that some people will get both illnesses at the same time.
“We don’t know how long COVID is going to be around, and we know Lyme disease is going to be around for a while,” she said.
More research needs to be done on whether infection with Lyme disease could increase a person’s risk for COVID-19, Sapi said, but it’s possible.
Typically, the ticks that cause Lyme disease start popping up in late spring or early summer, but Sapi said they seem to be showing up earlier, due to climate change and warmer temperatures.
Saul said this is “promising to be a fairly active tick season,” so people need to be vigilant. This includes checking everyone in the family, including pets, for ticks after spending time outside, and carefully removing them with tweezers if found. Other steps include using tick repellent, and wearing long pants and socks when spending time outdoors.
These tick prevention measures are in addition to steps many people are already taking to protect themselves from COVID-19, such as mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent hand-washing.
For people who develop symptoms linked to these illnesses, “sometimes you might have to be tested for both,” Saul said. However, some confusion can be alleviated using common sense, he said.
“If you spend a lot of time outside and aren’t having respiratory symptoms, it’s probably Lyme,” Saul said. “And if you’re in quarantine, not going outdoors, and have a cough, then it’s more likely to be COVID.”
As an added twist, he pointed out the possibility that it could be neither.
“There are already some summer viruses going around,” Saul said.