Lymphoma or Lyme Disease?

Two Very Different Conditions With Similar Symptoms

Deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, on a fingertip.

Lyme disease and lymphoma are very different health problems: one is an infectious disease, the other a type of cancer. Even so, the symptoms of these conditions are remarkably similar—so similar that oncologists and infectious disease specialists have been known to cross paths when consulting on the same patient, to try to figure out what is going on.

In fact, Lyme disease is sometimes called "The Great Imitator" because it so often mimics many other illnesses, according to LymeDisease.org, a non-profit that advocates for health care for people with Lyme disease as well as other tick-borne infections.

Here's how these two diseases are similar, how each is diagnosed, and a potential way they may intersect.

Overlapping Symptoms

Lymphoma is cancer of the lymphocytes, the white blood cells that mostly are found in the body's lymphatic system, but also are present in blood and other tissues of the body. By contast, Lyme disease is an infection caused by a bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, that's typically transmitted by a certain kind of tick.

If you were to develop either condition you would probably first feel as if every ounce of energy is being sucked out of you and getting up in the morning would take a supreme effort. You may develop lumps in your neck that are a sign of lymphadenopathy, or swollen lymph glands. And you might start to have such pain in your joints that even the simplest task is agony.

Other symptoms shared by lymphoma and Lyme disease include fevers and night sweats, weight loss, and chills.

Diagnoses and Possible Connection

Neither lymphoma nor Lyme disease can be diagnosed based on symptoms alone. In order to be certain a person has cancer, a doctor will do a biopsy—remove an entire lymph node that's swollen (or, less often, just a bit of tissue from it), to be examined in a laboratory, according to the American Cancer Society.

Testing for Lyme disease can be a bit less straightforward. It's done by looking for antibodies to the Borrelia bacterium in a blood sample. Because it takes time to develop those antibodies (as many as four to six weeks or more), according to LymeDisease.org, it's possible for a Lyme disease test to come back negative even though the infection is there.

There is one possible way in which Lyme disease and lymphoma may be connected. A study published in the journal Blood in 2008 found evidence to suggest that being infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease may be associated with an increased risk of a specific type of lymphoma.

Of course, these findings are very preliminary—there's no reason to be worried that if you have Lyme disease you'll also develop cancer. In fact, the early symptoms of both Lyme disease and lymphoma are so common chances are if you have them you've simply got a bad cold or the flu. But for your peace of mind, it's never a bad idea to see your doctor.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. "Tests for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma." May 31, 2016.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Signs and Symptoms of Untreated Lyme Disease." Oct 26, 2016. 

Schöllkopf C, Melbye M, Munksgaard L, et al. Borrelia Infection and Risk of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. Blood. 2008;111(12):5524-5529.

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