The Reality of Lyme Disease Infectiousness
Building a Strong Immune System
“You’re number 80,” the middle-aged woman said mournfully as she walked in.
“You’re exaggerating.” I stated matter-of-factly.
“No,” she replied, “I’m counting!”
For the previous seven years Jane had been to 79 doctors for an illness that nobody could figure out. She was having chest pain and difficulty breathing, but nobody could find anything wrong with her heart or lungs. Nothing turned up on blood tests, x-rays, and other investigations. She continued to get worse over time, including fatigue, weakness, and joint pains. We finally determined that she was suffering from a very elusive infection – Lyme disease.
Lyme Disease Discovery
The story of how Lyme disease was discovered is fascinating. Lyme disease was unknown until 1973 when a group of people became ill with a mysterious disease in Lyme, Connecticut. Due to the persistence of mothers of several sick children, an investigation was conducted. The disease was named “Lyme disease.” At the time, it was considered a tick-borne disease. However, the exact cause was unknown until 1981 when the spirochete organism was found in ticks in Colorado. Dr. Willy Burgdorf was studying another illness caused by ticks when the bacteria for Lyme, called spirochetes, were found.
Spirochetes are not like other types of bacteria or viruses. They have unique characteristics that allow them to infect any cell or tissue in the body. They can also evade the immune system, both by hiding inside cells and by producing a protective coating. For this reason, they can cause any type of problem and disguise as many illnesses. This is why syphilis, another spirochete-like Borrelia, was called “The Great Imitator.” It could imitate any disease because it can infect any tissue. Its symptoms are like those of many other diseases, from rashes to schizophrenia. One researcher on syphilis noted:
“In two-thirds of untreated people, spirochetes and host will live amicably together until the patient dies of other causes, in about a third, however, the organism will continue to act upon the host to cause a variety of mischief.”
These exact words could be used to describe Lyme disease today. The “variety of mischief” means it could infect any organ or tissue, causing any sort of problem. Indeed, Lyme disease could be “The Great Imitator” of the 21st Century!
A Stealthy Disease
Even though Lyme disease was only recognized 40 years ago, new discoveries found the Lyme bacteria in a fossilized tick from the Dominican Republic, indicating that it existed before humans walked the Earth. The oldest known human to have Lyme disease was a mummified body found in a glacier in the Italian Alps that may be as old as 5300 years!
Lyme Disease SymptomsThe symptoms of Lyme disease are as variable as the people who have it. It is a slippery condition to diagnose because nothing defines it, except a known tick bite. Subsequently, the tick bite produces a rash known as erythema chronicum migrans (EM) days to weeks later.
These rashes typically look like a “target,” but are actually highly variable. The CDC states that up to a third of people with Lyme disease never get, or see, a rash. In some cases rashes may spread beyond the original bite, and persist for years.
Other common symptoms include:
(3 to 30 days after tick bite)
- Muscle and joint aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
Later Signs and Symptoms
- Severe headaches and neck stiffness
- Additional EM rashes on other areas of the body
- Severe fatigue
- Arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling, particularly the knees and other large joints
- Facial or Bell’s palsy (loss of muscle tone or droop on one or both sides of the face)
- Intermittent pain in tendons, muscles, joints, and bones
- Heart palpitations or an irregular heart beat (Lyme myocarditis)
- Episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath
- Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
- Nerve pain
- Shooting pains, numbness, or tingling in the hands or feet
- Problems with short-term memory
Lyme Disease Testing
Jane had visited so many doctors who weren’t able to find a diagnosis because there is no accurate way to know if she had Lyme disease. The tests for Lyme look for antibodies, but the organism doesn’t always produce antibodies. Many people have little or no immune response to the presence of the spirochete. If you test positive, there is a good chance you have it. However, if you test negative, that doesn’t rule it out. Twenty years ago doctors were told that in order to have Lyme disease four criteria had to be met:
- The patient had to be in the Northeastern United States
- The tick had to be attached for more than 36 hours
- There had to be an EM rash
- There had to be a positive blood test
It turns out that as more research is done, some people with Lyme disease may have only two, one, or even none of these. Unfortunately, most doctors still only know these four criteria, and fail to recognize many cases of Lyme disease.
Lyme Disease is Increasing in Numbers
In January 2014 Lymedisease.org reported,
“Last summer the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that Lyme disease is much more common than previously thought, with over 300,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the United States. That makes Lyme disease almost twice as common as breast cancer and six times more common than HIV/AIDS.”
We’re not sure that there are that many black-legged tick bites every year! In spite of this, the CDC continues to assert that the disease can only be acquired by ticks. Clearly, these numbers are much greater than can be explained by only tick bites.
Lyme Disease Transmission
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