A rare complication of Lyme disease has caused three deaths in nine months, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to make the public more aware of the condition and its symptoms.
Lyme carditis occurs when the Lyme disease bacteria—Borrelia burgdorferi—spread to the heart and disrupt its electrical system. The resulting condition is called heart block, a type of arrhythmia (irregular rate or rhythm of the heartbeat) that can range from mild to severe, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
Only about 1 percent of all Lyme disease cases reported to CDC involve Lyme carditis. However, the Dec.13, 2013, issue of CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) described three sudden cardiac deaths in the U.S. between November 2012 and July 2013 that were attributed to Lyme-related heart block.
Only four deaths worldwide from Lyme carditis were reported in medical journals between 1985 and 2008, according to CDC.
All three of the most recent deaths occurred in the Northeast. In each case, autopsies found evidence of recent Lyme disease infection that had invaded the heart.
According to CDC, symptoms of heart block can include:
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
People with Lyme carditis usually have other symptoms too, such as fever and body aches. They also may have experienced symptoms of Lyme disease, like a red rash in the shape of a bull’s-eye, fatigue, fever and swollen glands.
Lyme carditis can be treated with antibiotics. In some cases, a temporary pacemaker device may also be needed.
The MMWR noted that two of the three people whose deaths were linked to Lyme carditis had pre-existing heart conditions, but it’s unclear if this contributed to their deaths.
The authors suggested that any diagnosis of Lyme disease include a discussion of the symptoms of heart block and that diagnosis of heart block include questions about tick exposure.
“Although death from Lyme carditis is rare, it should be considered in cases of sudden cardiac death in patients from high-incidence Lyme disease regions,” the authors wrote.
The MMWR report also emphasized the importance of avoiding ticks bites. You can learn how to do that here.