Association of Presenting Symptoms With Abnormal Laboratory Values for Vector-Borne Illness - Experience in an Urban Gastroenterology Practice

J Patient Cent Res Rev. 2021 Jan 19;8(1):39-47. doi: 10.17294/2330-0698.1729. eCollection 2021 Winter.


Purpose: In the clinical setting, it is not common practice to consider a vector bite, such as from a tick or flea, to be a contributing factor to chronic digestive symptoms. This article investigates associations we have observed among symptomatic patients and positive blood tests for vector-borne illness (VBI).

Methods: Patients who visited an urban gastroenterology clinic over a 3-year period were retrospectively reviewed. A total of 270 patients presenting with a constellation of digestive symptoms - and who had no apparent digestive pathology and reported no prior diagnosis or treatments for VBI - were analyzed. Before the initial visit, all patients completed a review of systems medical history form, which comprised 19 gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and 73 non-GI-related symptoms and conditions. Patients were tested for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) by lactulose breath test. VBI (babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, bartonellosis, borreliosis) was established using 1 or more of several blood tests. Odds ratio (OR) analysis determined associations between exposure to VBI, SIBO, and presenting symptoms/conditions. Two age groups (≤35 years and ≥36 years) were studied using Cochran-Mantel-Haenszel stratum-based test.

Results: A higher OR (2.03, 95% CI: 1.5-3.6) was found between patients with ≥3 digestive symptoms and positive blood tests for ≥1 VBI. Five of the 19 GI symptoms were independently associated with VBI-positive samples: food intolerance, indigestion, nausea/vomiting, constipation, and heartburn. A similar association in patients with ≥3 non-GI symptoms (OR: 2.83, 95% CI: 1.3-6.4) was observed. Five of the 73 non-GI symptoms/conditions were independently associated with VBI-positive samples: chest pain, shortness of breath, extremity or joint pain, anxiety, and night sweats. Having ≥3 of any digestive or nondigestive symptoms generated significant relative risk of being VBI-positive. Presence of SIBO alone did not identify significant relative risk for a VBI, and age was not a confounder.

Conclusions: Findings revealed an association between positive blood tests for vector-borne illness and chronically symptomatic patients regardless of whether symptoms were digestive or nondigestive. The manifestation of 3 or more gastrointestinal and/or extraintestinal symptoms should raise suspicion for a VBI.

Keywords: Lyme disease; SIBO; bloating; digestive symptoms; functional bowel disorders; gastrointestinal symptoms; malabsorption; small intestinal bacterial overgrowth; tick-borne; vector-borne illness.