Humans are at risk for contracting Lyme disease when bitten by a blacklegged tick infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium. This can lead to a variety of symptoms that generally respond well to treatment in the early stages of the disease. However, there are some people who experience persistent symptoms, which can include light sensitivity and other eye related complications, which we discuss here.
Visual Symptoms of Lyme Disease
There are certain visual problems which are commonly associated with chronic Lyme disease or disease relapse, and they can occur at any stage of the disease—from within a few days or weeks after the infection to several years after it is first diagnosed. In fact, one study reported that in nearly 40% of pediatric patients with chronic lyme symptoms or disease relapse experienced eye symptoms.2 Some of these vision-related issues might include:4
- ocular pain or inflammation
- double vision (diplopia)
- blurry vision or reduced visual focus
- pink eye (conjunctivitis)
- keratitis (inflamed cornea)
- infections of the retina
Photophobia, or painful sensitivity to light, is another symptom that is certainly felt in the eye but also represents a deeper neurological problem as well.
Light Sensitivity in Lyme Disease
Statistically speaking, light sensitivity (also known as photophobia) can be rare in the early stages of Lyme disease, affecting between 5-16% of patients; however, the total impact of this painful symptom may be significantly underreported.1 In fact, some researchers have acknowledged that as many as 70% of lyme patients report photophobia. The cause of light sensitivity in Lyme disease is not fully understood, however it may be related to meningitis symptoms that manifest in the early stages and/or as a result of altered brain function stemming from encephalopathy.3,5
In addition, many patients have reported that they must endure varying symptoms of light sensitivity beyond their inability to tolerate bright lighting. This can include seeing halos, shadows and episodes of fragmented vision. There is also particular agitation around fluorescent lights, which might lead to dizziness and even feelings of anxiety.6 In addition, Lyme patients also must deal with a variety of other issues that can separately compound the risk for developing light sensitivity, which makes diagnosing the exact cause even more difficult. They include:
- Chronic headaches
- Eye conditions and symptoms (e.g. uveitis, conjunctivitis, and keratitis)
- Lyme meningitis
What is worse is that many acknowledge that their sensitivity to light is severe, even “incapacitating.” And although it can resolve itself within a few weeks or months, it can also worsen over time—particularly if it is not addressed. Take this anecdote from an online Lyme forum:
"It got worse and worse though and I started noticing halos around digital clocks...Now I can't even watch tv or go on the computer at all half the time the light hurts my eyes so much. I can't go outside without sunglasses either, even on the grayest days…"
This is a story shared by many with the condition, suggesting that there is a pronounced negative impact on their quality of life.
1Aucott, JN., Rebman, AW., Crowder, LA. And Kortee, KB. (2012) Post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome symptomatology and the impact on life functioning: is there something here? Qual Life Res. 2013 Feb; 22(1): 75–84.
2Donta ST. Issues in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Lyme Disease. The Open Neurology Journal. 2012;6:140-145. doi:10.2174/1874205X01206010140.
3Goldberg S, Katz BZ. Lyme disease presenting as ptosis, conjunctivitis, and photophobia. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 2012 Feb;51(2):186-7. doi: 10.1177/0009922810393948. Epub 2011 Jan 10.
4Mora P, Carta A. Ocular manifestations of Lyme borreliosis in Europe. International Journal of Medical Sciences. 2009;6(3):124-125.
5Mikkilä HO, Seppälä IJ, Viljanen MK, Peltomaa MP, Karma A. The expanding clinical spectrum of ocular lyme borreliosis. Ophthalmology. 2000 Mar;107(3):581-7.
6Fallon, B.A., Nields, J.A., Burrascano, J.J., Liegner, K.B., B.A., D.D., & Liebowitz, M.R. (1992). The neuropsychiatric manifestations of Lyme borreliosis. Psychiatric Quarterly, 63, 95-117.
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