When it looks like a brain tumor, but it is Lyme disease

Pseudotumor cerebri, also referred to as idiopathic intracranial hypertension, is a condition caused by elevated cerebrospinal fluid pressure in the brain. Symptoms can mimic a brain tumor, but in actuality there is no tumor. Instead, there is unexplained intracranial pressure in the head. The condition is rare in prepubertal children.

Ezequiel and colleagues report on the case of a 9-year-old boy from Portugal who was diagnosed with pseudotumor cerebri due to Lyme disease. The child “was admitted with daily pulsatile frontotemporal headache, pallor, photophobia and phonophobia, without night awakening, vomiting or visual changes,” writes Ezequiel in the British Medical Journal Case Reports. [1]

His neurological examination revealed papilloedema (swelling of the optic disc) but was otherwise normal. Brain images were unremarkable. Serologic, PCR and cultural testing ruled out bacterial and viral agents including Mycoplasma pneumoniae, Epstein-Barr virus, Cytomegalovirus and Enterovirus. So the boy was prescribed acetazolamide (a “water” pill).

[bctt tweet=”Symptoms of a brain tumor turn out to be Lyme disease in 9-year-old boy. ” username=”DrDanielCameron”]

However, ELISA and Western blot results were positive for B. burgdorferi antibodies, the bacteria causing Lyme disease. “The diagnosis of neuroborreliosis was assumed,” explains Ezequiel “and a 21-day course of intravenous ceftriaxone was started.” The boy made a complete recovery.

According to Ezequiel, the boy met the clinical criteria for pseudotumor cerebri, which is defined as including “symptoms and signs isolated from those produced by increased intracranial pressure, such as headache, papilloedema, vision loss and elevated intracranial pressure with normal CSF composition.”

There are many causes of pseudotumor cerebri, Ezequiel explains, so the differential diagnosis is vast and includes “infectious diseases such as meningitis, otitis media and mastoiditis, obstruction of venous drainage such as venous sinus thrombosis and hyperviscosity, endocrine disorders, obesity, nutritional disorders such as hypervitaminosis A and medications.”

The authors highlight several key points:

• Pseudotumor cerebri can be the sole manifestation of neuroborreliosis.
• A history of tick bite is often absent in many cases.
• Central nervous system involvement can occur with no cutaneous manifestations.
• Borrelia infections should be actively investigated in children with central nervous system disease even in non-endemic areas.

Related Articles:

Child with Lyme disease presenting as pseudotumor cerebri

Case report: Neuroborreliosis more common in children

What happens to the brain during acute Lyme neuroborreliosis?



  1. Ezequiel M, Teixeira AT, Brito MJ, Luis C. Pseudotumor cerebri as the presentation of Lyme disease in a non-endemic area. BMJ Case Rep. 2018;2018.

26 Replies to "When it looks like a brain tumor, but it is Lyme disease"

  • AmyRose
    04/11/2019 (11:17 pm)

    I’m having much difficulty finding a doctor that will even test me for lyme and/or coinfections. I have all the symptoms and I am becoming quite debilitated. I have spent a lot of time outdoors my entire life and have always been around a lot of animals. About 4 years ago, I was walking through the woods with my boyfriend when suddenly I noticed my boyfriend was covered in tiny ticks I looked down and they were all over me too! We must’ve walked through a nest or something. It was awful. We brushed them off as fast as we could and we didn’t notice that any had latched on but I starting developing symptoms shortly after. More recently, I’ve been having pain in the occipital region on the right side and extreme fatigue. I’m a nursing student with not the greatest insurance and not a lot of money to fund treatment that’s not covered. I’m getting very discouraged and finding it difficult to meet even the most basic of life’s demands lately. I don’t know what to do anymore. I’m really scared.
    I’m so desperate, that I’m about to buy and take animal doxycycline. I know this is probably not the best idea but I’m at a loss here and I need to be able to function obviously. Ugh!
    Thanks for this information.

  • shareen
    11/07/2018 (12:27 pm)

    Dr. Cameron,
    Last year my 10 year old daughter was on our 65 acres of land in Georgia and got multiple nympth tick bites, rash and 6 weeks later full blown symptoms. We went to an ILADS director ..Barnwell, who did 9 months of cefdinir and azithromycin, She wanted to use mepron as well to cover babesia but my husband and I thought that was too much on her so we skipped the mepron.SHe stopped the cef/azith 4 months ago and since then is getting a progression of daily headaches..usually in the afternoon and top of head with eye pain. Mri was clear as well as eye exam.Infectious Dr we went to said there is No Lyme in Ga!! the other night she got a 101 fever and flu symptoms which left the next morning. We moved from Ga 4 months ago to escape the tick epidemic and are on the gulf coast.. wth no drs here to help us. SIerra also developed scoliosis 6 months ago.. what of her symptoms could be lyme or co infections and what does it sound like she has??

    • Dr. Daniel Cameron
      11/07/2018 (1:54 pm)

      I am sorry to hear your daughter remains ill. Your story reflects the difficulties finding an answer. It remains important to see differing specialists until you find an answer.

  • Jennie
    10/30/2018 (9:18 pm)

    Doctor, last year I had a brain/pituitary MRI with contrast and the report said I had a 3mm pituitary adenoma. After traveling to top
    endocrine center, USC , Cedars Sinai , UCLA and St Johns Provident I received all differing opinions from the Drs. and Neurosurgeon Drs..
    The first 2 said it was a RAnthkes Cleft cyst, UCLA Neurosurgeon said there were no characteristics to lead him to believe it was either an adenoma or cyst. St. John Neurosurgeon said it was nothing and should be re tested each year for growth. I was just diagnosed with Lyme disease and Im wondering is this 3 mm dark circle a false tumor of some sort??

    • Dr. Daniel Cameron
      10/31/2018 (7:21 am)

      I will often find something during my Lyme disease evaluation. I ask my consultants to evaluate each finding. I am not sure the lesion you described is related. I hope treatment for Lyme disease helps,

  • Gladys
    10/10/2018 (11:08 pm)

    Same symptoms here! I was diagnosed with Lyme disease but my headaches are just terrible I need to stay in bed at least 3 days. It seems like I will have it for the rest of my life. 🙁

  • Christy Colasurdo
    05/25/2018 (12:56 am)

    I an adult female was diagnosed with Lyme disease about six years ago, and have a persistent daily headache/feeling like brain is swollen/ intracranial pressure, as well as vision loss. Localized nerve blocs helped the head pain (but one can only do these sparingly) and about 9 months of intramuscular Bicillin injections helped mitigate (but not eliminate) some of the more debilitating other Lyme symptoms, like migrating joint pain, stiff neck, inability to retrieve common words (loss of cognition for a time). In your experience, is there evidence that Lyme affects the occipital nerve?

    • Dr. Daniel Cameron
      05/27/2018 (1:06 pm)

      You are not alone. There are a number of Lyme disease patients with pain in the occipital area. It sounds as if antibiotics and blocs have helped but not eliminated your pain.

    • Maureen
      10/31/2018 (6:34 pm)

      My situation is exactly like yours! I have Lyme disease and daily headaches. I also have double vision for which I now wear prism glasses. I have tried occipital nerve blocs, botox, and many headache medicines, with little results for the migraines. Yesterday, I had an MRI which indicates Lyme disease in my brain as well as other issues. I see my Neurologist tomorrow. It is very frightening

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