Looking at former Army fitness instructor Lorraine Murray now, you’d have a hard time believing she was competing in Olympic-level triathlons just four years ago. The 46-year-old mother of two, who served in the Army for eight years, now relies on a wheelchair to get around.
The culprit? The tickborne illness Lyme disease, she tells the Daily Mail.
Back in August 2014, Murray noticed a tiny black speck—a tick, as she later determined—on her skin when she was walking her dog. She brushed it off, and didn’t think anything of it. Then, a few days later, she started experiencing what she thought was the flu: She was tired, her neck felt stiff, and her muscles ached.
Those symptoms persisted, and then after nine months, they grew even worse. She started experiencing heart problems, dizziness, and problems with her balance. Her doctors told her it was chronic fatigue syndrome, but she never felt right about the diagnosis. Then she came across a documentary about Lyme disease, and remembered the tiny black speck on her skin that day in 2014.
“I went from running triathlons to not being able to walk. I knew something serious was wrong, I thought I was going to die,” Murray told the Daily Mail. “It’s been no life. I was sensitive to noise and light, my muscles ached and I was tired all the time—even the effort of a shower would put me to sleep.”
Researchers estimate that up to 376,000 Americans are infected with Lyme disease each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The bacterial illness, which is spread through the bites of infected blacklegged ticks, causes flu-like symptoms within the first 30 or so days: Think fever, chills, fatigue, and achy muscles. You may also experience a bull’s eye rash, which many people consider the hallmark sign of the disease.
Problem is, diagnosing Lyme can be tricky. The early symptoms of Lyme are nonspecific, and can signal a bunch of other illnesses. Plus, if you don’t remember a tick bite—as is the case with the majority of people diagnosed with Lyme—you probably aren’t thinking Lyme. And your doctor may not be, either.
Even if your doctor does order the Lyme blood tests, diagnosing it can be tricky, too. You need two different tests to come back positive for it. But, if you get tested too early, the tests may miss it. These tests measure the levels of antibodies your body produces against the bacteria, which usually don’t develop until a few weeks after infection. So tests done before that can come back negative, according to the CDC. A positive reading usually only occurs 4 to 6 weeks after infection.
In Murray’s case, she believes she was tested too early: Her results came back negative, meaning she missed out on treating Lyme when it’s still in its early stages. And that’s a problem, since Lyme that remains untreated is more likely to causes symptoms that progress to heart palpitations, nerve and joint pain, dizziness, and even problems with your memory, according to the CDC.
“I’m convinced the reason I got so ill was because there was a delay in treatment,” she says.
Treat Lyme disease early—usually with 100 milligrams (mg) of an antibiotic called doxycycline twice a day for 21 days—and chances are good you’ll recover completely and quickly, the CDC says. So if you experience the symptoms listed above, especially if you remember seeing a tick on you, you may want to ask your doctor for the test.
And play the preventive game: Protect yourself against bites from infected blacklegged ticks in the first place. If you live in an area with a higher Lyme risk—like the Midwest and upper Northeastern states—be sure to check for ticks often.
One of the best things you can do? Invest in a tick-repellent spray that contains the pesticide permethrin, like this one.
As for Murray? She’s finally on the road to recovery and has founded the Tick-borne Illness Campaign in Scotland to raise awareness of the disease being missed in patients.*