Debbie Gibson Has Lyme Disease

Singer/songwriter Debbie Gibson wants fans to know that she is not anorexic. She has lost a lot of weight over the past year because she has Lyme Disease.

Gibson outlined the course of the disease on her website. She began experiencing anxiety in the Spring of 2013, quickly followed by food sensitivities. “I found I could not touch sugar, starch, caffeine, certain oils, etc., without having a severe reaction that felt like jolts of electricity running through my body. I felt like a live wire. Talk about ‘Electric Youth!’”

This was followed by nerve pain, muscle fatigue and back pain. She began to wonder if she had mono and her doctor tested her for a variety of diseases. No diagnosis yet…

Debbie went on to have feelings of numbness and tingling in her hands and feet as well as  night sweats, chills, fever, nerve tremors, nightmares, and migraine headaches.

“During the next several months, I would continue to cycle in and out of this flu like state and my doctors, unable to see me in person due to my touring schedule, would deduce by phone I had H Pylori or maybe an upper respiratory infection. I was put on Z paks, Amoxicillin and Dixilant. These combos of meds made me feel considerably better. But I would only stay on a typical 10-day course.”

Because she couldn’t tolerate sugars or starch, Gibson ate more fat in an attempt to gain weight.  But instead of the desired effect, it  affected her gallbladder and almost had to have it removed.

Discouraged by her “gaunt and deleted” appearance, she saw a dermatologist who suggested Botox injections to “cover the lines and signs of what was going on.” Five days later,  she appeared confused, was mixing up her words, had numbness and tingling in hands and feet and increasingly frequent tremors.

She was eventually referred to a gastroenterology, Dr. Rahbar (LA Integrative GI), who tested her for Lyme Disease. All the tests came back positive! She was then treated with  daily IV Vitamin drips, acupuncture, and an “intense regime of antibiotics and other medications. ”

Gibson says she is slowly getting better:

“I actually feel like me again. We all face challenges and I am learning much from the ones I am facing. No disease in the body can keep the spirit from soaring, the love from pouring, and nothing can stop the music!”

What is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is an illness caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. It is spread through the bite of infected ticks. The black-legged tick (or deer tick, Ixodes scapularis) spreads the disease in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and north-central United States, and the western black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificus) spreads the disease on the Pacific Coast.

tick_sizesTicks can attach to any part of the human body but are often found in hard-to-see areas such as the groin, armpits, and scalp. In most cases, the tick must be attached for 36-48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted.

What are the symptoms of Lyme Disease?

The symptoms of Lyme Disease can be divided into four stages:

1. Early localized stage (3-30 days post-tick bite)

  • Red, expanding rash called erythema migrans (EM) 
  • Fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes
Erythema migrans

Erythema migrans

Not all people get the erythema migrans rash. General symptoms may be the only evidence of infection. Some people get a small bump or redness at the site of a tick bite that goes away in 1-2 days, like a mosquito bite.

More about Erythema Migrans:

  • Rash occurs in approximately 70-80% of infected persons and begins at the site of a tick bite after a delay of 3-30 days (average is about 7 days).
  • Rash gradually expands over a period of several days, and can reach up to 12 inches (30 cm) across. Parts of the rash may clear as it enlarges, resulting in a “bull’s-eye” appearance.
  • Rash usually feels warm to the touch but is rarely itchy or painful.
  • EM lesions may appear on any area of the body.

2.  Early disseminated stage (days to weeks post-tick bite)

Untreated, the infection may spread from the site of the bite to other parts of the body, producing an array of specific symptoms that may come and go, including:

  • Bells Palsy

    Bells Palsy

    Additional EM lesions in other areas of the body

  • Facial or Bell’s palsy  (muscle weakness on one or both sides of the face.
  • Severe headaches and neck stiffness due to meningitis (inflammation of the spinal cord)
  • Pain and swelling in the large joints (such as knees)
  • Shooting pains that may interfere with sleep
  • Heart palpitations and dizziness due to changes in heartbeat

Many of these symptoms will resolve over a period of weeks to months, even without treatment. However, lack of treatment can result in additional complications, described below.

3. Late disseminated stage (months-to-years post-tick bite)

Approximately 60% of patients with untreated infection may begin to have intermittent bouts of arthritis, with severe joint pain and swelling. Large joints are most often affected, particularly the knees.

Up to 5% of untreated patients may develop chronic neurological complaints months to years after infection. These include shooting pains, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, and problems with short-term memory.

4. Lingering symptoms after treatment (post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome)

Approximately 10-20% of patients with Lyme disease have symptoms that last months to years after treatment with antibiotics. These symptoms can include muscle and joint pains, cognitive defects, sleep disturbance, or fatigue. The cause of these symptoms is not known, but there is no evidence that these symptoms are due to ongoing infection with B. burgdorferi. This condition is referred to as Post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). There is some evidence that PTLDS is caused by an autoimmune response, in which a person’s immune system continues to respond, doing damage to the body’s tissues, even after the infection has been cleared. Studies have shown that continuing antibiotic therapy is not helpful and can be harmful for persons with PTLDS.

How is Lyme Disease Diagnosed?

Lyme disease is diagnosed based on:

  • Signs and symptoms
  • A history of possible exposure to infected black-legged ticks
  • Laboratory blood tests are helpful if used correctly and performed with validated methods.

Each year, approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to CDC.

How is Lyme Disease Treated?

Patients treated with appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely. Antibiotics commonly used for oral treatment include doxycycline, amoxicillin, or cefuroxime axetil and are given for a period of two to four weeks. Patients with certain neurological or cardiac forms of illness may require intravenous treatment with drugs such as ceftriaxone or penicillin.


The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to avoid contact with deer ticks, especially during the summer months when infections are most common. Other useful tips:

  • Wear long pants, long sleeves and long socks to keep ticks off the skin. Tuck shirts into pants, and pant legs into socks or shoes, to keep ticks on the surface of your clothing. If outside for a long period of time, tape the area where pants and socks meet to prevent ticks from crawling under clothing.
  • Wear light-colored clothing to make it easier to spot ticks.
  • Spray clothing with the repellant permethrin, found in lawn and garden stores. Do not apply permethrin directly to the skin.
  • Spray exposed clothing and skin with repellant containing 20 to 30 percent DEET to prevent tick bites. Carefully read and understand manufacturer instructions when using repellant, especially when using the products on infants and children.
  • Pregnant women in particular should avoid ticks in Lyme disease areas as infection may be transmitted to the fetus.
  • Avoid wooded areas and nearby shady grasslands. Deer ticks are common in these areas, and particularly common where the two areas merge.
  • Maintain a clear backyard by removing yard litter and excess brush that could attract deer and rodents.
  • Once indoors after being outside, check for ticks, especially in the hairy areas of the body, and wash all clothing.
  • Before letting pets indoors, check them for ticks. Ticks may fall off and then attach to humans. Pets can also develop Lyme disease.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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