Why Is It So Hard to Get a Lyme Disease Diagnosis?

Most physicians, especially those who practice in tick hot-spots like the northeastern United States, know to look out for Lyme disease symptoms during spring and summer months. But the disease is less prevalent in Southern California, where Lavigne says she was seeking treatment. If a patient hasn’t had a rash and doesn’t remember being bitten, doctors there may be slower to identify ticks as a potential factor.

Bass says that anyone who’s experienced fatigue or joint pain for several months should think back to when their symptoms started, and whether they spent time in area of the country known for Lyme disease outbreaks. A blood test cannot confirm whether you are currently infected, but it can tell if you have been exposed to Lyme bacterium in the past. (It actually tests for antibodies, which develop a few weeks after a person has been infected and remain in the blood forever.) Doctors can use these test results, along with a person’s current symptoms, to make a diagnosis.

“But even these test results can be complex and confusing, especially for physicians who aren’t used to dealing with Lyme,” Dr. Bass says. Some doctors also believe that Lyme disease can be diagnosed without a positive blood test, she adds—although there’s no evidence that these methods are accurate or that antibiotics, in these cases, work any better than placebo.

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