Lyme Disease: What It Is And What It Isn’t

With Avril Lavigne speaking about her difficulties with lyme disease, the condition has been all over the news. Although most people are familiar with the term, few know what it actually is. Even fewer know how to seperate the wheat from the chaff when looking for information about it.

First of all, what is it? Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, that is spread by Ixodes scapularis, the tick commonly known as a “deer tick” or “blacklegged” tick. It is named after the town where it was first noted, Old Lyme, Connecticut. (It was originally mistaken for a new form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis). The most common sign of infection is the characteristic bulls-eye rash. Other symptoms include fever, fatigue, and joint pain. If left untreated, it can develop into arthritis type symptoms and neurological problems. Fortunately, it can be easily treated in the early stages with oral antibiotics. More advanced cases may require intravenous antibiotic therapy. Antibotic therapy usually lasts one to two weeks.

“But I’ve heard about people who have lyme disease for years and years,” some will say. No doubt some people have, but this is most likely a combination of two separate things. The first is the untreated lyme mentioned above, which undiagnosed can continue for a great period of time. The second is a bit harder to explain and far more controversial.

Some may have heard the phrase “chronic lyme disease.” This may refer to Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome, a condition where some symptoms persist after treatment. It is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of patients treated for lyme disease will experience these symptoms. The cause is unknown, but it is possible it is an autoimmune effect from a long-term lyme infection. Most of the time, however, it refers to a group of patients who believe they are chronically infected with Borrelia burgdorferi. These patients say that the current lyme disease treatment protocol is wrong and even harmful. The symptoms attributed to “chronic lyme” are varied and contain almost anything any one could think of. Most of these patients and their advocates say that long term antibiotic treatment, oral or intravenous, is needed to manage it.

There’s a problem with this, though. Most “chronic lyme” patients haven’t tested positive for lyme at all. Medical science’s consensus is simple; someone who tests negative for Borrelia burgdorferi doesn’t have lyme disease. The two blood tests used for the condition, the ELISA assay and western blot, are both accurate (ELISA to 70 percent and the Western blot to 95-96 percent) and if both are negative, lyme disease is unlikely. Even in the later stages of condition, the rates of accuracy go up, not down. No evidence exists to show that antibiotic treatment is effective past a 28 day period. As for some of the more extreme treatments – malarial therapy, hyperbaric oxygen, colloidal silver, and even injections of hydrogen peroxide – none of those have any effect on the typical form of lyme disease, much less the mythical “chronic lyme.” All of those treatments can have potential complications as well.

In summary: Lyme disease is a tick born illness caused by a bacteria. While symptoms can be disabling, especially in the later stages of the untreated disease, antibiotic therapy is usually curative. There is no evidence that a person can be chronically infected with lyme disease.

(Image via Wikipedia/CDC.)