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Self-Diagnosis: Do you Have Lyme Disease Co-infection Symptoms?
- Ticks are responsible for transmitting zoonotic infections between animals and humans. Although they’re frequently associated with Lyme disease, ticks can transfer numerous diseases at once, through co-infections. Around 60% of ticks carry more than one disease-causing pathogen.
- Testing for co-infections is not reliable, which is why we must rely on an evaluation of symptoms and patient histories to help inform diagnoses.
- Some of the most common pathogens associated with tick bites include: Borrelia Burgdoferi, Babesia, Bartonella, Ehrlichia, Mycoplasma, RMSF, EBV, and HHV-6.
- Each pathogen transmitted through a tick bite can come with its own set of unique features and symptoms.
- Understanding the unique complexities of each infection could help to give you the information you need to diagnose the presence of co-infections that have been given through a tick bite.
- Just like humans, ticks host hundreds of different microbes, and physicians should be careful to search for the possibility of co-infections when diagnosing and developing treatment plans for Lyme disease.
What Are Co-infections?
Most people know that ticks are responsible for transmitting the bacteria that causes Lyme disease (otherwise known as Borrelia Burgdoferi). However, ticks are not limited to spreading a single pathogen. In fact, research in New York found that approximately 60% of ticks carry other disease-causing pathogens too!
Ticks are one of the most ideal vehicles in nature for transmitting microbes, and many microbes take advantage of the unique opportunity that ticks provide. Tick-borne infections are zoonotic, which means that they can be transferred from animals to humans. Ticks can transmit a host of diseases from squirrels, rats, and mice, to humans in a single bite, transferring fungi, protozoans, viruses, and bacteria at the same time. While being infected with a single disease like Lyme is bad enough, being infected with multiple can complicate your body’s biology, your treatment strategy, your diagnosis, and your ability to heal.
Some of the most common tick-borne diseases across the U.S. include Lyme disease, Bartonella, Babesia and more. When multiple diseases are transmitted together, they’re known as “co-infections”. Co-infections are more common than you might think – particularly among people with chronic Lyme disease. A survey of over 3,000 patients with chronic Lyme disease found that more than 50% were affected by co-infections, with 30% suffering from two or more infections.
The existence of these co-infections may even help to explain why some people who suffer from Lyme disease remain chronically ill following treatment – even after the Lyme is treated. Unfortunately, because testing for co-infections and Lyme disease itself is often unreliable, many strains go un-diagnosed. However, there is hope – when the symptoms of co-infections are spotted, diagnosed, and treated, many patients improve significantly.
Diagnosing Lyme Disease Co-Infections
The more you learn about tick-transferred diseases, the more you’ll come to learn that there’s far more than just Lyme disease to be concerned about. Not only are co-infections incredibly dangerous, but people who suffer from multiple infections at once generally experience more symptoms, an increased severity in their illness, and a difficult recovery.
The complications that arise with co-infections, and the fact that most doctors disregard the possibility of multiple infections at once has actually prompted the CDC to officially recommend that physicians consider co-infections seriously when patients present with more severe symptoms. Despite this, many doctors who have not specialized in the diagnosis of Lyme disease continue to use the Lyme “ELISA” test, which simply measures a patient’s antibodies in response to Lyme bacteria. Unfortunately, by modern standards these tests are not very sensitive, or a reliable testing method.
Unfortunately, although there are a variety of tests available for assessing Lyme disease and zoonotic diseases, the test results are typically ambiguous and difficult to identify. As such, diagnoses must be made based on a full picture of the available symptoms, and the history of the disease as it has presented itself across the years.
The Most Common Lyme Disease Co-Infections
Since Lyme disease was originally diagnosed during 1981, researchers have been able to discover more than 15 new tick-borne pathogens that hadn’t been seen before. Today, new pathogens are still being discovered. Here, we’ll look at some of the most common tick-transmitted pathogens, so that you can have a better insight into the symptoms associated with co-infections.
Borrelia Burgdorferi (Lyme)
Starting with perhaps the most obvious culprit, Lyme disease is caused by “Borrelia Burgdoferi”, and can be transmitted through the bite of an infected black-legged tick. The most typical symptom of Lyme disease in its early stages is a circular rash around the bite site, which appears around three to thirty days after the bite. The rash is also called “Erythema Migrans”. Please note that only 30% of people with Lyme will develop a rash. Some Lyme disease sufferers will also suffer flu-like symptoms such as:
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Muscle and joint pain
- Stiffness in the neck
After a few weeks, more serious symptoms can begin to appear – particularly if Lyme disease is not treated in the early stages. The infection can spread to the nervous system, heart, and joints. These symptoms might include:
- Inflammation in the membranes supporting the spinal cord and brain (meningitis)
- Heart problems, such as inflammation in the heart muscle
- Problems with the nervous system – such as paralysis of the facial muscles, difficulty concentrating, and memory issues
- Swelling and pain throughout the joints
In diagnosing Lyme disease, laboratory testing is often only useful if it is combined with validated methods of symptom evaluation.
Technically a parasite, rather than an infection, Babesia is a piroplasm that infects red blood cells. Many researchers believe that Babesia is the most common piroplasm to infect humans, and more than twenty piroplasms have been identified as being carried by ticks. Alongside its capacity to be transmitted through a tick bite, Babesia can also be passed along from a mother to an unborn child, or through blood transfusions. At this time, many blood banks do not screen the blood donated for the presence of Babesia.
The symptoms of Babesiosis are very similar to Lyme disease, but generally begin with chills, and a high fever. As the infection spreads, patients may feel:
- Shortness of breath (air hunger)
- Hip pain
- Chest pain
- Muscle aching
- Excessive sweating
Babesiosis can also lead to severe blood-related complications, such as low blood pressure, liver problems, kidney failure and hemolytic anemia. While the typical antibiotic treatments used for Lyme disease are ineffective with Babesia, some experts recommend using cucurmin – an anti-inflammatory herb with antimalarial compounds1.
Clinically if you have night sweats, heart palpitations or heart flipping and/or shortness of breath (aka air hunger), think Babesia!
Bartonella is a form of bacteria that lives within the blood vessel linings of the body. Bartonella can infect both humans and animals, and lead to the development of bartonellosis – an acute and self-limiting illness. Unfortunately, bartonellosis can also be responsible for chronic infections, and many patients suffer from regular relapses because the bacteria periodically move through red blood cells – protecting it from complete destruction.
Referred to frequently as “cat-scratch fever” the early signs of Bartonella include:
- Problems with appetite
- A strange rash similar to stretch marks
Approximately one or two weeks after infection, Bartonella can also cause lymph nodes to swell, and may prompt edema leg swelling. Symptoms can include seizures, ophthalmological issues, brain encephalitis and emotional disorders such as anxiety.
Bartonella is slow-growing and can take 24 hours to double in number, accumulating throughout the bone marrow, liver, spleen, and red blood cells. While Lyme disease can be responsible for altering mood and prompting depression, most of the psychiatric symptoms in infected people are related to Bartonella.
Ehrlichiosis is a term that can be used to describe a host of bacterial diseases, including anaplasmosis. Many of these diseases are transmitted by ticks. The clinical manifestations of Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis are similar, characterized by:
- Muscle aches
- High Fever
Patients with severe conditions can suffer from low platelet counts, low white blood-cell counts1, anemia, kidney failure, elevated liver enzymes and respiratory insufficiency. Older people, and those with immune suppression are generally more likely to need hospital treatment. Unfortunately, diagnosis is limited by our ability to test for only some species of Ehrlichia parasites.
Mycoplasma is smaller than the average bacteria, but larger than a typical virus. Indeed, these substances are the smallest self-replicating life form that we’ve ever discovered – small enough that 4,000 of them can fit within a single red blood cell.
Mycoplasma is one of the primary causes of rheumatoid arthritis, which can be transmitted through small open wounds, sexual contact, ingestion, inhalation, and of course – tick or insect bites. This substance has been known to cause pneumonia, and can sometimes be linked with Tourette’s syndrome. Research also suggests that mycoplasma infections can be particularly common within patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis2.
Diagnosing mycoplasma is a difficult task, because the appearance of the organisms is difficult to distinguish from the cell-wall deficient form of Lyme. The only primary difference between the two is that mycoplasma can’t generate a cell wall. However, Gulf War syndrome and Walking Pneumonia is actually an infection caused by mycoplasma. Mycoplasma often provokes autoimmune issues, and can be linked with issues surrounding magnesium deficiency. General infection symptoms often include:
- Sore throat
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a tick-borne infection that is caused by interaction with the bacterium Rickettsia Rickettsii. A potentially fatal organism that can lead to significant issues throughout North and South America, the illness is spread through the bite of various infected tick species, including the Rocky Mountain wood tick, brown dog tick, and American dog tick.
The typical symptoms of RMSF can vary from one patient to another, but they usually include:
- Abdominal pain
- Muscle pain
- Conjunctival Injection
- Lack of appetite
- Abdominal pain
Rashes are also possible with RMSF, but they often don’t appear within the first few days, and some patients never experience them at all. Unfortunately, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can be fatal if it is not treated within the initial few days of symptoms. Patients do NOT do well with sulfa drugs when they have RMSF!
According to experts, up to 95% of the population across the world today may be infected with the Epstein Barr Virus, or EBV – which can be found within the herpes family. Within its acute and highly-infectious stage, the disease can be transmitted through bodily secretions such as saliva and genital fluids, and there have been some links between tick-transmitted diseases and EBV too.
A stealthy virus – EBV uses DNA methylation to hide from the immune system and stays within the resting memory B cells. Because these cells change along with the immune system, they protect the pathogen, and allow the EBV virus to proliferate without being detected.
Similarly to many of the viruses associated with tick-transmitted pathogens, including Lyme disease, the symptoms of EBV can include:
- Spleen enlargement
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Sore throat
Some patients also experience episodes of Jaundice.
Finally, HHV-6 is a herpes virus that was discovered during the mid-eighties, and is active in almost all Lyme disease patients, alongside Borrelias Burgdoferi. Although it is often known as a co-infection, HHV-6 is actually an opportunistic virus which lays in inactive hosts, waiting for a moment to strike. The Lyme infection can then allow HHV-6 to present itself.
The symptoms of HHV-6 generally include fatigue and neurological symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating or issues with memory. This virus is particularly worrisome to immunocompromised patients, as it can attack several cells in the body which are responsible for fighting off infection and disease.
As more research is carried out surrounding HHV-6, scientists are beginning to recognize a connection between the virus and cancer. This link comes through the protein P53, which regulates cell cycles and can suppress tumors. Because HHV6 attacks this specific protein, it can often be found in many active cancer patients.
Alongside the diseases outlined above, ticks in specific geographical areas can also be infected with things like:
- Powassan Encephalitis Virus – a disease which causes tick-borne encephalitis. The patients who suffer from this condition may not experience any symptoms at all, or they could experience severe neurological problems, and even death. Some of the most common symptoms include headache, fever, vomiting, confusion, weakness, seizures, and memory loss. At present, there are no commercial diagnostic tests that are available for the disease, nor are there any specific forms of treatment.
- Q Fever – a disease caused by Coxiella Burnetti – a form of bacteria typically carried by goats, sheep, and cattle. The symptoms are often quite similar to those experienced by people with Lyme disease, though Q Fever often begins with high fever. In some cases, liver function problems and pneumonia can also indicate the presence of Q fever.
- Colorado Tick Fever Virus – a disease caused by the Rocky Mountain wood ticks, the symptoms of this disease include high fever, chills, severe headaches, muscle pain and on-going fatigue.
- Tularemia – also known as “rabbit fever”, this condition can occur throughout the United States in people who have been infected by tick bites. The disease is caused by a bacterium known as Francisella tularensis, and symptoms can include swollen or painful lymph glands, sore throat, skin ulcers, inflamed eyes, mouth sores, diarrhea, vomiting, and even pneumonia.
The Truth About Ticks and Diagnosing Lyme Disease
When it comes to understanding Lyme disease and co-infections, it’s important to remember that the microbes that are transmitted into your body through a tick bite do not exist within a single form. Often, these microbes cycle between cell wall and cystic forms, clumping together and hiding behind biofilms to avoid being filtered out by the natural defenses of the body. This means that it can be difficult to treat and fully understand the presence of Lyme disease within a patient if we don’t also recognize the potential for co-infection.
If you were to tally up all the tick-borne microbes available in the world, you’d end up with a number in the hundreds, or even thousands. This shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider the fact that all creatures harbor a wide number of different microbes. Like animals, humans are even capable of housing thousands of different microbes.
Just like humans, the range of microbes that can be present in different ticks is highly variable. Certain microbes are more prevalent in certain tick populations, and some geographic areas are more likely to carry certain microbes. One thing we know for certain is that ticks carry a cocktail of potential microbes. Every bite from a tick is therefore an opportunity not only for a single infection – but for multiple transferences.
When it comes to co-infection, it’s important to recognize that testing – for the most part – is highly unreliable, which is why examining symptoms is so important. Hopefully, the list outlined above will help you to diagnose the potential of co-infections for yourself in the future.
1 Horowitz, Richard I. MD. Why Can’t I Get Better? Solving the Mysteryof Lyme and Chronic Disease. St. Martin’s Press; 2013 Nov 12.
2 Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Healing Lyme: Natural Healing and Prevention of Lyme Borreliosis and Its Coinfections. Raven Press; 2005 Jun 25.