Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness, often referred to as “The Great Imitator” because of its vast list of non-specific symptoms. Initial Lyme disease infection can present similarly to flu, and late-stage symptoms can be similar to arthritis. Because of this, Lyme disease is often misdiagnosed as other conditions. And since treatment for Lyme disease needs to occur quickly to rid the body of the borrelia bacteria, these issues with diagnosis can make it much more difficult to get proper treatment and fully recover from the disease.
One example of a health condition that can be mistaken for Lyme disease (or vice versa) is Sjögren’s syndrome. But what is Sjögren’s syndrome, how does it affect the body, and how can Lyme disease be misdiagnosed as Sjögren’s? Read on to learn more.
What is Sjögren’s syndrome?
Sjögren’s syndrome is a chronic health disorder that is characterized as an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakes healthy cells for pathogens or foreign invaders and begins attacking them, causing damage. When the disease develops, the result is less moisture produced by the glands in both the mouth and the eyes. The condition itself was named after the physician who first discovered its existence, Henrik Sjögren.
There are two forms of Sjögren’s syndrome: primary and secondary. Primary Sjögren’s develops for an unknown reason or cause, whereas secondary Sjögren’s develops alongside other autoimmune disorders such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
Although the development of autoimmune disorders isn’t fully understood, it is thought that there are several factors that play a role in their onset. These include:
What are the symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome?
The most common symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome are a dry mouth and eyes. However, many people with the disease go on to develop other symptoms, some of which mimic other diseases. Muscle and joints pains are often experienced, much like those that occur with fibromyalgia.
Other symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome include:
Burning or redness in the eyes, or feeling as though there’s sand in the eyes
Abnormal sense of taste
Difficulty swallowing, talking, or chewing
Persistent dry cough or hoarseness
Dry, itchy skin
Enlarged salivary glands
Tooth loss and accelerated tooth decay
Not everyone with Sjögren’s syndrome will experience all these symptoms.
Can Lyme disease mimic Sjögren’s syndrome?
Because the symptoms of both Sjögren’s and Lyme disease are varied and non-specific, it is entirely possible that Lyme disease can mimic Sjögren’s syndrome and that a misdiagnosis can occur. According to medical experts, Sjögren’s disease can act like a chameleon of sorts, and many people with other disorders such as Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke, or chronic fatigue may exhibit the classic telltale signs of Sjögren’s syndrome.
In the same way that a person can have Sjögren’s syndrome and exhibit symptoms of other diseases, Lyme disease may be present in a person who is appears to be suffering from Sjögren’s syndrome.
Is there any other connection between Lyme disease and Sjögren’s syndrome?
Although evidence to support connections between Lyme disease and Sjögren’s syndrome (beyond their ability to present similarly) is scarce, there may be a link between the two chronic conditions. According to one case study, having an untreated case of Lyme disease may actually cause a person to develop Sjögren’s disease. While it is known that a viral infection can lead to the development of secondary Sjögren’s, this connection between the Lyme disease bacteria and the syndrome suggest it may be possible that bacterial infections can have the same effects.
The aforementioned case report also raises some questions regarding Lyme disease and its ability to cause further bodily damage than previously thought. For example: if Lyme mimics autoimmune disease, how often does it truly happen, and how many people diagnosed with other disorders potentially have Lyme disease? It also poses a further question for health care professionals: should people with autoimmune disease be tested for Lyme disease?
Image by Erik Karits on Unsplash: Lyme disease is often misdiagnosed because the symptoms present similarly to other diseases, and doctors typically only test for Lyme when there is a known tick bite.
Since Lyme disease and Sjögren’s syndrome are thought to be connected in such a way, it’s entirely possible that there are more positive cases of Lyme disease than medical professionals know about – and therefore more people who may need treatment for Lyme as opposed to the treatment they are currently undergoing for other disorders.
What is Lyme disease commonly misdiagnosed as?
There are many diseases that Lyme disease may be misdiagnosed as, including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, insomnia, and a variety of autoimmune disorders. Diagnosing Lyme disease becomes tricky because of its ability to present in such varied ways and with so many symptoms common to other disorders.
Unfortunately, medical professionals often leave out Lyme disease testing in the absence of a known tick bite. However, that practice is sure to change as more evidence suggests that Lyme disease is prevalent, damaging, and able to hide under the diagnosis of other diseases.