Differences Between MS & Lyme Disease
Last updated: April 2023
Multiple sclerosis (MS) and Lyme disease are sometimes confused for each other because they both can cause neurologic symptoms. MS can be a difficult disease to diagnose because it shares symptoms with other conditions. And there is no single test to diagnose MS, so it can take time to truly understand your symptoms. However, MS and Lyme disease are very different conditions.1
What is MS?
MS is a chronic disorder that affects the central nervous system (CNS). This includes the brain and the nerves that leave the spinal cord. Nerves are surrounded by myelin, a form of insulation that helps the nerves send their signals faster.1
In people with MS, this myelin is damaged, and there is a lot of inflammation. This can cause symptoms like:1,2
- Trouble walking
- Tingling sensations
- Bladder problems
Scientists are not sure why people develop MS, but they believe there may be genetic and environmental causes.1,2
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can be passed to you by a deer tick. Not all species of tick, and not all deer ticks, carry Lyme disease. But if a tick bites another animal with Lyme disease and then bites you, it can pass on an organism called Borrelia burgdorferi. This bacteria is also known as a spirochete.3
Lyme disease symptoms may take days or even months to develop. Most people infected with Lyme disease develop a characteristic red “bullseye” rash. However, some people with Lyme disease do not have this rash. Many people also develop flu-like symptoms like headache, fever, or joint pain.3
Why are the two conditions confused?
Lyme disease may not be diagnosed and treated in its early stages due to an unnoticed tick bite or lack of the bullseye rash. When it goes untreated, many of its symptoms can be neurological and look like those of MS.4
Lyme disease can cause:3
- Blurry vision
- Tingling sensations
Both disorders have a wide variety of symptoms and may look different in every person. And both can be difficult to diagnose. Lab tests for Lyme disease may not come back positive soon after a tick bite, even if you have symptoms. Before diagnosing MS, doctors often need to run multiple tests to rule out other disorders.1,4
Lyme disease may even look similar to MS on brain imaging or on studies of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.3
Differences between Lyme disease and MS
The biggest difference between Lyme disease and MS is that Lyme disease is an infection. You can develop Lyme disease only if you are bitten by a tick that carries it. Your doctor may ask you whether you have been exposed to ticks. The ticks that carry Lyme live in forests all over the United States, but they are most common in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, Midwestern, and Pacific coast states.4
For most people, Lyme disease can be treated successfully with antibiotics. Some people may have Lyme symptoms that last for more than 6 months. These chronic symptoms may also be confused with MS. However, experts have found that these symptoms do eventually go away.4,5
There is currently no cure for MS. Treatment focuses on managing the symptoms. MS is also different from Lyme disease because the symptoms may progress or come and go in a flare-up and remission cycle.2
It is important to get the correct treatment for both Lyme disease and MS. If you have questions or believe you may be living with either disorder, speak to your doctor.
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