- Caused by the bite from an infected tick, Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose, even harder to treat, and the only human vaccine was withdrawn when it was shown to be unsafe.
- Although antibiotic treatment is effective for many people, 10 to 20 percent of Lyme patients suffer from lingering and debilitating symptoms.
- Medical professionals disagree about why some patients fail to heal and suffer chronic symptoms, and some patients turn to alternative therapies to regain their health.
Lyme disease has been around for thousands of years. The tenacious bacteria were found in the 5,300-year-old mummy known as “Ötzi” or the “Iceman,” and Lyme is widely regarded as the most common tick-borne illness in North America.1
Despite pervasiveness of Lyme, currently there is no vaccine approved for use in humans, although one is being developed. An OspA Lyme vaccine manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline was licensed in 1998 by the FDA but was withdrawn by GSK in 2002 amid numerous reports of serious side effects, including vaccine-induced Lyme symptoms and crippling brain and immune system damage. Last year, the FDA approved clinical testing of a new VLA15 Lyme vaccine manufactured by a French biotech firm, Valneva.2
Lyme disease is transmitted via the bite of Ixodes ticks, also known as deer ticks in the east and black-legged ticks on the west coast. In most cases, the disease is transmitted by immature ticks—nymphs as small as poppy seeds—and with a bite so painless many people don’t realize they’ve been bitten at all.3 The disease first gained public attention, and got its name, after a group of children around Lyme, Connecticut, were diagnosed with a mysterious rash and joint pains in the early 1970s.
The strange syndrome was finally linked to a tick bite, and the responsible spirochetes (corkscrew-shaped bacteria) were identified by Willy Burgdorfer as Borrelia burgdorferi in 1981.4
The Great Imitator
One of the problems with diagnosing Lyme disease is that presenting symptoms mimic those of so many other diseases, including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and psychiatric conditions like depression. Many patients are misdiagnosed and may be inappropriately treated for years before Lyme is diagnosed.
Lyme can affect almost any system of the body, most commonly the heart and joints, and may present as a flu-like illness including fever, chills, sweats, muscle aches and fatigue. Joint and muscle pain are common, and some patients develop a rash or Bell’s palsy, which causes a temporary facial drooping and may be mistaken for stroke.
While the classic “bull’s-eye” rash is often seen within a few weeks of being bitten, many people develop a different type of rash, and many never see a rash at all. If a rash does occur, it may resemble a spider bite, a bruise, ringworm, or cellulitis. It may fade over time then reappear, and “satellite” rashes may appear on other parts of the body aside from the site of the tick bite.5
Other common signs of early Lyme include itching, headache, dizziness, stiff neck and swollen lymph glands.6
Blood Testing Is Not Reliable
Currently there are two types of tests for Lyme disease, the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and the Western blot. The ELISA is used as a broad screening test, and the Western blot is used to confirm suspicions. Frustrating the diagnosis, neither is a direct test for the infective agent itself. Instead, each test measures the patient’s immune system response to infection: The ELISA checks for the presence of two different antibodies that commonly are present in people with Lyme disease, though they may not show up in the early stages of disease.
The Western blot looks at the pattern of proteins (antigens) in the blood. If five of the ten signature bands are positive, a diagnosis of Lyme is made. However, some of the bands are more significant than others, so that is not a hard and fast rule. Seven of those proteins are common in people with past infection and three tend to indicate the presence of active Lyme.
Unfortunately, blood tests for Lyme are notoriously insensitive, with as many as 20 to 30 percent of tests producing a false-negative result.7 Even more frustrating, a blood sample may come back positive for all ten antigens, “proving” that the patient both has active disease and has been previously infected. Yet, that same patient could undergo treatment, come back the following year with the same symptoms, but their repeat blood test may come back negative for all indications of Lyme.
There are direct tests that also may prove useful, but they tend to be hit or miss because the actual Lyme spirochetes are scarce in blood and so are easily missed on sampling. Culturing of fluid samples in order to grow the Lyme spirochetes holds a lot of promise, but the only available test is new and needs further testing for authentication.
Treatment Isn’t Necessarily a Cure
Unfortunately for sufferers, the standard available treatment for Lyme comprises a thirty-day course of treatment with doxycycline, a broad-spectrum antibiotic that effectively wipes out all bacteria in the body, both the good and the bad. Doxycycline also is associated with numerous side effects, such as gastrointestinal pain and photosensitivity that can make it a difficult course of therapy for many patients.8
Finally, completion of standard treatment is no guarantee of a return to pre-Lyme state of health. Many Lyme sufferers are left with chronic debilitating conditions that compromise their quality of life.
Chronic Lyme: Is it a Thing?
There is a lot of disagreement in the medical community about Lyme and how to diagnose and treat it. The very existence of chronic Lyme disease is debated by medical authorities, though patients who suffer from the debilitating effects of acute Lyme infection have no doubt that chronic Lyme infection is a real and chronic illness. The argument in the medical community seems to hinge not on whether some patients suffer lingering symptoms but on why they experience them.9
The majority of doctors using the standard treatment protocol maintain that the Lyme pathogen is cleared from the body with, at most, a 30-day course of oral antibiotics if caught early. Further, they hold that, even if significant time has passed between the tick bite and diagnosis, a month of intravenous antibiotic therapy will still cure the disease. They do not deny that between 10 and 20 percent of patients develop lingering symptoms, but they refer to that syndrome as “post-treatment Lyme disease” rather than “chronic Lyme disease,” and attribute the symptoms to residual damage to both the tissues and the immune system.
More than simple semantics, those doctors worry that when patients with lasting symptoms are considered to have chronic Lyme infection, the continual treatment they may receive could prevent other health conditions from being appropriately diagnosed and treated. Another concern is the dangers associated with the long-term use of antibiotics and other therapies used to treat chronic Lyme disease.10
Lyme-Literate Doctors Disagree
Physicians identified as “Lyme-literate” have another opinion: They believe that the Lyme bacterium does not always clear from the body but settles in where it can be very difficult to locate, evades the natural immune response, and causes long-term illness.11 These doctors believe that aggressive and long-term treatment with antibiotics, coupled with systemic support measures including herbal treatments may help chronic sufferers to regain their health.
Many natural health practitioners also recommend immune-supportive natural antimicrobials and practices to combat chronic Lyme infection.12
Two Sides Clash Over Therapy for Chronic Lyme Symptoms
Regardless of what it is called, for patients it is the therapeutic predicament that can be most confusing and frustrating. Mainstream medicine asserts that chronic symptoms will ease with enough time, while Lyme-literate practitioners argue that continuing therapy is necessary to combat the sneaky Lyme bacteria.
A cautionary statement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)13 refers to a study that evaluated various so-called “unorthodox” treatments offered to patients to combat Lyme disease. The researchers looked at more than 30 strategies including oxygen therapies, energy or radiation-based treatment, nutritional approaches, chelation and heavy metal therapies, and unapproved biological and drug therapies. They concluded that there was no scientific support for these therapies and in many cases they could be dangerous.14
Alternatively, even a cursory Internet search turns up myriad testimonials from patients crediting alternative therapies for returning them to health after long battles with chronic Lyme that failed to respond to standard treatment.
1 Kacaijk P, Luytjes W. Vaccination against Lyme disease: Are we ready for it? Human Vaccine Immunotherapy March 2016.
2 La Vigne P, Fisher BL. FDA Gives Green Light to Test Lyme Disease Vaccine on Humans. The Vaccine Reaction Jan. 26, 2017.
3 About Lyme Disease. LymeDisease.org 2017.
4 History of Lyme Disease. Bay Area Lyme Foundation.
5 Early Lyme Disease. LymeDisease.org 2017.
6 Giorgi A. Chronic (Persistent) Lyme Disease. HealthLine Sept. 28, 2012.
7 Lyme Disease Diagnosis. Lyme Disease.org 2017.
8 Doryx Side Effects. Drugs.com.
9 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome. CDC.gov. June 26, 2017.
10 MacMillan A. “Chronic Lyme Disease” Isn’t a Real Diagnosis. So Why Are Doctors Prescribing Risky Treatment for It? Health June 23, 2017.
11 Stricker RB. Counterpoint: Long-Term Antibiotic Therapy Improves Persistent Symptoms Associated with Lyme Disease. Clinical Infectious Diseases July 15, 2007.
12 Mercola J. Lyme Disease Treatment Strategies. Mercola.com 2017.
13 CDC. Alternative Treatments for Lyme Disease. CDC.gov. June 15, 2017.
14 Lantos PM et al. Unorthodox Alternative Therapies Marketed to Treat Lyme Disease. Clinical Infectious Diseases Apr. 6, 2015.