5 Questions about Tick-Borne Illness and Lyme Disease
Ticks are tiny arachnids, 3 mm to 5 mm in length (poppy seed size to sesame seed size) that feed on the blood of mammals and birds. Many species transmit diseases, including Lyme Disease, to both people and animals.
Ticks that bite humans are present in all 48 of the contiguous United States. Late spring, summer and early fall are when most tick bites occur.
1. What role does the tick life cycle play in tick-borne illness?
Because ticks attach to various host animals and feed on their blood, ticks harbor multiple bacteria and infectious diseases. These blood-borne bacteria easily spread from the first host – often a rodent or bird― to the next host. All blood-borne bacteria from the tick’s previous hosts are transmitted to its final host, which is sometimes a human.
Ticks carry a unique disease-causing bacteria called a spirochete. It’s shaped like a Slinky and can curl in on itself to form a protective ball and survive when conditions are unfavorable, like when antibiotic treatment attempts to kill it. When conditions change, the bacterium uncurls and continues ravaging its host. This can occur months or even years after dormancy.
2. Where does the name “Lyme Disease” come from?
The most common tick-borne infection globally is caused by a spirochete bacterium known as Borrelia.
The illness was first identified in the US near Lyme, Connecticut in 1977. This happened when a group of teenagers complained of aching joints after experiencing similar bulls-eye skin rashes. A parent brought together investigators that determined the condition was due to seasonal surges in tick bites. The studies, mostly done in Lyme, Connecticut, coined the name “Lyme Disease.”
The telltale bulls-eye rash and aching joints (sometimes misdiagnosed as juvenile arthritis) aren’t always present. The Borrelia bacterium may attack the immune system or exploit other weak areas in the body. Symptoms can include brain fog, headaches, hallucinations, flu-like symptoms, liver inflammation, rashes, fever, muscle pain, meningitis, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia-like muscle aches, and in advanced cases left untreated, neurodegenerative disease and muscle paralysis.
3. Is there a medical test to verify Lyme Disease or other tick-borne illness?
The bacteria transmitted from ticks to humans are difficult to diagnose. Because ticks bite with an anesthetic, you can’t feel them and may be unaware that you have been bitten. The wide array of symptoms makes diagnosis challenging.
A surefire way to confirm Lyme Disease is if you get a skin rash after a tick bite, whether it’s a “bulls-eye” rash or solid red or pink in presentation.
A bulls-eye rash itself is confirmation of Lyme Disease. If you develop such a rash, take photos and document its progression (it will likely enlarge over time) and seek medical attention. Common misdiagnoses are fungal infections and spider bites, so photograph and document well in case you need a second opinion.
However, not all tick bites cause a bulls-eye rash, and without the rash, tick-borne illnesses are difficult to diagnose.
Another diagnostic is a blood test for antibodies that indicate your body has encountered the bacteria. However, such tests fail 40% to 70% of the time, because some people suffering from tick-borne illness have compromised immune systems incapable of effectively producing antibodies.
Bottom line: It’s very difficult to diagnose Lyme Disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
4. How long after a tick bite might you see symptoms?
Adding to the diagnosis difficulty, the incubation period for tick-borne illness varies. Symptoms may appear from four weeks up to several months after the bite.
One red flag for tick-borne illness is flu-like symptoms in the summer months. The flu virus is not present in North America in the summertime, and such symptoms can be a telltale sign of tick-borne illness.
Because it’s so challenging to identify, it can go undiagnosed for years, during which time the spirochetes reproduce readily and attack various systems of the host. In addition, there may be more than one tick-borne infection present, which complicates the diagnosis and treatment and can mean a multitude of symptoms that don’t align with a single diagnosis.
“I presented with immune weakness and autoimmunity, which affected my hormones, gut and nervous system. After two years of illness, I was tested for Lyme Disease,” said Krista Hewlett Keegan, a neuroscientist who left medical school due to her disability with undiagnosed Lyme Disease. “My initial Lyme test wasn’t positive, so the bacteria spread for several more years and my symptoms kept getting worse.”
5. How do we treat tick-borne illness?
The sooner you treat tick-borne bacterial infections, the better. The antibiotic doxycycline may cure the disease for patients diagnosed early when given for 4-6 weeks.
For infections that linger undiagnosed for months or years, treatment takes longer and becomes much more comprehensive due to complications.
For example, when treated briefly for Lyme Disease in childhood, adults can still have an active infection that went dormant in the presence of antibiotics, but has re-emerged. This can result in incorrect diagnoses of Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
There are conflicting standards of care for the treatment of Lyme Disease cases.The International Lyme and Associated Disease Society (ILADS) has a recognized standard of care for tick-borne illness. ILADS-trained clinicians recognize that Lyme and its related co-infections can be difficult to diagnose, and can go dormant when antibiotics are present.
“Lyme-literate” clinicians who follow the ILADS standard of care prescribe multiple rounds of antibiotic treatment spaced apart over several years to target hidden reservoirs of dormant bacteria that re-emerge after each round of antibiotics.
When undergoing treatment, integrative medical practices should be incorporated, including full bodily support for cellular detoxification, liver support, a clean diet, herbal antimicrobials, and botanicals that target the organisms in their hiding places.
Suspect you or a loved one may have borreliosis? Visit the ILADS frequently asked questions page for more information.