Though it’s a devastating chronic disease, Lyme disease confounds a large portion of the public. It’s much more than a bull’s eye rash, and with more than 35,000 reported cases of Lyme in the United States lastCDC estimates, based on other data, that 300,000 people are treated in the US each year for Lyme.
Below are 10 things everyone should know about Lyme:
1. Lyme disease is not just a summer illness.
I’ve seen patients who developed acute Lyme disease in January. The right diagnosis had not been suspected because of the mistaken belief that Lyme cannot be acquired in winter. It can be. And even if the tick bite that gives you Lyme disease occurred in the summer, symptoms may not be evident for weeks or sometimes months.
2. You don’t need to be near a deer to be exposed to deer ticks.
Although Lyme bacteria are transmitted to people by deer ticks (also known as Ixodes ticks), you don’t need to be anywhere near deer to be exposed to them. Ixodes ticks live on the skin of many small animals. The white-footed mouse is probably the most important reservoir of deer ticks for transmission of Lyme bacteria to people, because mice can come right into your yard or home unnoticed.
3. You don’t need to leave the city to get Lyme disease.
The San Francisco Health Department collected ticks from its city parks and found Lyme-infested ticks in all of them. I’ve seen a few patients who contracted acute Lyme disease without leaving Manhattan. Infected ticks get into urban green spaces by at least three routes: mice, birds or dogs. Many of the dogs that frolic on the lawn in Central Park spend weekends in the country.
4. Lyme disease has been called the Great Imitator: it can cause a very wide range of symptoms.
These symptoms involve many different organs, including your skin, nervous system, joints, muscles, heart and eyes. In my medical practice, Lyme disease is the trigger for half my patients with chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia, most patients with painful neuropathies or autonomic nervous system disorders, 40% of people with dizziness and 30% of patients with arthritis or autoimmune disorders.
I’ve seen Lyme disease cause abrupt changes in personality, impaired thinking, memory loss and panic disorder. I’ve even seen a few patients given a misdiagnosis of Crohn’s disease or multiple sclerosis, who were actually suffering from Lyme disease.
5. If you have another condition, acquiring Lyme disease can make it much worse.
So if you suffer from any mysterious disorder involving pain, inflammation, fatigue or brain dysfunction, you should consider Lyme as a possibility, wherever in North America you live.
6. Standard blood tests for Lyme disease can be misleading.
They rely on antibodies made by your immune system that are directed against antigens present in Lyme bacteria. Every week I see people who had been told “You don’t have Lyme disease” because the standard blood tests were read as negative, who in fact did have Lyme disease and were cured of their chronic illness by treatment of Lyme disease with the appropriate antibiotics.
The proper diagnosis of Lyme disease is based on clinical judgment, not laboratory tests. If you think Lyme may be making you sick, don’t accept a negative test as proof that Lyme must not be your problem.
7. The usual treatment protocol for Lyme disease — three weeks of doxycycline — may not produce a cure.
Borrelia, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, are able to hide from your immune system and outwit antibiotics, becoming “persisters”. The antibiotics commonly given to treat Lyme disease do not kill persisters. Specialized treatment protocols including more than one antibiotic or combinations of antibiotics and herbs may be needed.
8. Behavioral and environmental changes can aid your treatment protocol.
Several environmental factors may determine whether treatment works. Heat can increase the effectiveness of antibiotics by up to 1600 per cent. Consider exercise, saunas or Bikram yoga as adjuncts to antibiotic treatment. Oxygen helps to make persisters more sensitive to antibiotics. Heat and exercise can improve tissue oxygenation.
9. Antibiotics can damage the energy centers in your cells, which are called mitochondria.
Evolutionary biologists believe that mitochondria were once bacteria that found a niche for themselves in the cells of animals. They produce ATP, the molecule which stores most of our cellular energy, and in return they’re fed and sheltered as part of our cells. Antibiotics harm mitochondria through the same mechanism by which they kill bacteria.
Scientists at Boston University who have studied this effect found that NAC (n-acetylcysteine), a widely used and inexpensive amino acid, sold in most natural food stores, protects mitochondria from antibiotics without interfering with the anti-bacterial effects. NAC is used in clinical medicine for numerous purposes, from enhancing immunity to controlling compulsive behaviors, at doses of 1200 to 3600 milligrams per day without significant side effects.
10. With the right treatment, chronic Lyme disease can be cured.
I’ve seen people who have suffered from Lyme disease for up to ten years get well and stay well, without needing further antibiotic therapy. I’ve seen people who have been ill for up to 25 years get well, but they’ve needed some form of maintenance therapy to stay well. If you have chronic Lyme disease, never give up hope.