The Growing List of Celebrities With Lyme Disease

After one of the coldest winters on record, warm weather finally seems to be settling in.

But fair weather brings with it an increased risk of tick bites and Lyme Disease. And a growing number of celebrities seem to be diagnosed with the illness (see below)!

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.

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

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 PalsyAdditional 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.

Celebrities with Lyme Disease

Avril Lavigne

Avril_Lavigne_-_Smile  In April, Canadian singer Avril Lavigne revealed that she had been diagnosed with Lyme Disease. She believes she had the disease for about a year, but that it took doctors 8 months to make the diagnosis. Lavigne says that the illness left her bed-ridden for nearly 5 months. At times, she was even unable to talk!

But despite this hardship, she told People magazine that

“Sometimes it takes instances like this to put things in perspective. So in a way, I am grateful for all of this.”

Lavigne has used her recovery time to improve her diet (“sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, all organic”), exercise more, and has learned to meditate. She also used the time to write new songs, including the recently released, Fly, which will support of the 2015 Special Olympics.

Ashley Olsen

Ashley_Olsen_2011_ShankboneThis past week, it was reported that former child star turned fashion mogul Ashley Olsen has also been diagnosed with Lyme Disease. Sources close to Olsen told OK that Ashley is “really going through it. ”

“She’s really sick. It’s gotten worse. She was diagnosed in the very late stages so early detection measures weren’t options for her.”

“When she does come to work, she looks haggard and disheveled. And she’s often moody. Ashley’s having a very rough time right now.”

The typically private 28-year-old has not publicly confirmed her diagnosis.

Yolanda Foster

YolandaFosterRHONJ Yolanda Foster told fans that she has been battling Lyme Disease for the past 3 years. What’s more, Foster says that she has neuroborreliosis, a form of Lyme Disease where the brain itself has been infected with the spirochete that causes the disease. The illness has left her unable “to read, write, or even watch TV, because I can’t process information.”

Jane Alexander

Jane-Alexander_webTony and Emmy Award-winning actress Jane Alexander says she has had Lyme Disease twice!

She has been a proponent of  the documentary Under Our Skin, a film about chronic Lyme Disease. Filmmaker Andy Abrahams Wilson followed six individuals who report chronic symptoms, which they attribute to persistent Lyme infection:

“Each year thousands go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, often told that their symptoms are ‘all in their head.’ ” The docu scrutinizes the medical struggles of several people who believe they suffer from an extreme form of the disease and “Under Our Skin” shows how they had to battle the medical establishment to get treatment.

Other celebrities who have had Lyme disease include Alec Baldwin, Parker Posey, Jamie Lynn Siegler, singers Debbie Gibson and Daryl Hall, model Christie Brinkley, writers Amy Tan and Alice Walker, and even former President George W. Bush! Bush was diagnosed in 2007, when he noticed a rash and was treated before any other symptoms developed.


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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