Underlying health issues caused by Lyme disease have been implicated in the death of a Massachusetts man who veered off the road during a heart attack last year, in addition to being listed in the cause of death (COD) of two others in New York and Connecticut.
Only four deaths have thus far been attributed to Lyme carditis. As rates of Lyme disease increase, along with risk factors for heart disease such as diabetes and chronic stress, we can perhaps expect many more coroners’ reports to list Lyme disease as a cause of death.
This latest study was commissioned by the federal government after the discovery of abnormal inflammation in the heart of the Massachusetts man last year. Tests on the heart tissue confirmed an undiagnosed infection with Lyme disease which likely led to the myocardial infarction (heart attack) that caused the man to lose control of his vehicle.
What is Lyme Carditis?
Lyme carditis is a condition where severe inflammation in the heart is triggered by infection with the Lyme disease bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. This infection is transmitted through tick bite and the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently significantly increased estimates of rates of infection in the US from just 30,000 a year to around 300,000.
Bacteria that cause Lyme disease may accumulate at sites where tissue is already weak as immune system defences may be compromised in such tissue. This can mean that those with existing heart issues, or problems with a particular joint, the liver, kidney, or even the brain may experience an exacerbation of symptoms of an already diagnosed condition after contracting Lyme disease. This is just one of the reasons that the infection can be difficult to diagnose or may be missed entirely, as in the case of the Massachusetts man.
Symptoms of Lyme Carditis
Worryingly, however, the three people whose deaths have been attributed to Lyme disease were aged between 26 and 38, where heart disease is not usually a major concern as little tissue damage has yet had a chance to accumulate. None of the people had been diagnosed with Lyme disease but the CDC is highlighting these cases in an effort to urge people to seek medical attention immediately if they experience any of the following symptoms and live in New England or any other area where Lyme disease poses an increased risk:
- Heart palpitations
- Chest pain
- Light-headedness and/or fainting
- Shortness of breath
- Other symptoms of Lyme disease such as:
- Erythema migrans (the Lyme disease rash)
- Fever and flu-like symptoms
Diagnosing and Treating Lyme Carditis
Only around 1 in 100 people with Lyme disease are thought to experience symptoms of Lyme carditis (severe heart inflammation), and this is treatable with antibiotics in most cases when caught early. Some patients may require a temporary pacemaker to restore a normal heart rhythm as the heart tissue heals. The irregular heartbeat, along with fatigue, aches and pains, and a possible rash may cause physicians to suspect Lupus rather than an infection from a tick bite. This is why it is important that diagnosing physicians are aware of a history of tick bites, the bulls-eye rash and any flu-like symptoms or other symptoms experienced by the patient.
It remains rare for people to die from Lyme disease, especially from Lyme carditis, and even more rare for deaths to occur in patients so young and with little, if any, indication of heart problems. The deaths have public health officials on alert in the northeast and anyone suspecting that they have Lyme disease is encouraged to get checked out so as to access treatment for potential Lyme carditis as early as possible.
Read more about Lyme carditis here.