Living in New England, I come honestly by my paranoia regarding Lyme disease, especially after seeing so many ill with the myriad of symptoms encompassing this elusive disease. However, the scientist and physician inside dug much deeper to unearth how much of what we hear and see is fact versus myth regarding Lyme disease.
Myth #1: You only have Lyme disease (LD) if you have a BULLS-EYE rash. According to the CDC, 20-40% of patients do NOT have any rash and need further testing to properly diagnose the LD infection! Additionally, an annular red lesion appearing within several hours of a tick bite is considered a hypersensitivity reaction, not an EM rash that takes days to arise! To add to the confusion, STARI also presents with a bulls-eye rash, most likely because it’s a relative of Lyme and may become more prevalent in CT as the “lonestar” tick migrates further northward. Other conditions causing a similar rash include erythema multiforme (hypersensitivity reaction to medications, herpes, or Mycoplasma) and erythema annulare centrifugum (reaction to infections, chemicals, cancer or autoimmune disease).
Myth #2: Lyme disease is defined using CDC criteria of having a positive ELISA along with presence of 2 IgM bands and/or 5 IgG bands. The CDC’s website also states this criteria, “is NOT intended to be used for clinical DIAGNOSIS.” Thankfully, the CDC has updated their website to include alternative testing for Lyme if the initial IFA test is negative but the patient has LD symptoms. The current Lyme test is known to have many false negative and positive results, meaning it is not very accurate. As a naturopathic physician (ND), we are accustomed to running alternative tests for Lyme disease, including expanded Western blots, PCR tests that identify Lyme DNA, testing for other diseases that can cause similar symptoms, as well as labs identifying immune factors that play a role in disease and inflammation progression. To confirm the importance of comprehensive testing, one patient who originally thought he had Lyme disease despite negative Lyme testing discovered he actually had Mononucleosis!
Myth #3: Ticks ONLY transmit Lyme disease. There are several diseases that deer ticks can transmit, including Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, RMSF, HME, and Bartonella spp. Studies from the University of New Haven (UNH) found that 20 - 90% of deer ticks in 3 Connecticut towns carried LD, while Bartonella and Babesia were found in over 30% of these ticks. To make matters worse, 22% of deer ticks carried two or more of these microorganisms. These studies don’t even cover all the pathogens carried by the deer tick, as several viruses and Tularemia can be added to the list. Additionally, several Mycoplasma spp. have been discovered and cultured in deer ticks, while transmission studies have not yet been performed. For instance, UNH found three Mycoplasma spp., known to cause walking pneumonia, urinary tract infections, reactive arthritis, and linked to RA were found in 84% of deer ticks tested in CT. While all of these microbes may produce similar symptoms, their treatments may vary widely, making testing an important part of proper diagnosis.
Myth #4: It takes at least 1 - 2 DAYS for a tick to transmit Lyme disease. I believed Piesman’s study until a good friend was tick-free showering one morning, found a tick on her at work before lunchtime, removed it swollen with blood, and later that week had a bulls-eye rash and joint pains! She acquired the Lyme infection in less than three hours and was also positive by lab analysis! I know most studies mean well but they cannot account for every variable. In this case, the Lyme study used baby ticks called nymphs, while an adult tick bit my friend. Looking at the size of the ticks, it’s quite understandable that a nymph would take a day to transmit disease while an adult could do this in hours!
Myth #5: You can feel a tick feeding on you. Ticks secrete unique salivary proteins that create a type of “numbness” so you don’t feel them feeding and your body does not create the typical itching and redness associated with bug bites. Luckily, scientists at UCONN discovered that people who have been bitten by a tick create antibodies to the tick proteins and will respond with inflammation and itching when bitten by ticks a second time! Also, a quickly developing rash after a tick bite may mean that you having a hypersensitivity reaction to the tick and its saliva, are not infected with a disease, and are more likely to ward off invading microbes.
Myth #6: You can only catch Lyme disease out in the WOODS. Most patients who remember getting bit were doing yard work at home, although frolicking in the woods adds to the probability of being bitten! Ticks thrive in damp overgrown vegetation, backyards that are lined by trees, tall grass, or are visited regularly by deer. According to Dr. Stafford, deer ticks cannot survive in sunny or dry areas so make sure to mow your lawn regularly, create a safety zone between your backyard and woods by using a wood chip barrier around the perimeter, and avoid groundcover like Pachysandra.
Myth #7: Ticks are the problem, NOT the deer. Ticks live commonly where mice, squirrels, birds, and deer live because these animals are their food supply. In fact, Maryland and CT based studies found that deer tick populations are directly correlated to the number of deer in the area, where tick populations and Lyme disease increased exponentially if there were >20 deer/mile2. To put this in perspective, many CT towns have over 100 deer/mile2! Over 90% of adult ticks feed on deer, each laying about 3,000 eggs, leading to a veritable breeding ground of disease! Protect yourself and your families by reducing items that deer like to munch, like nuts, ferns, mushrooms, clovers, peas, apples, and fruit. Exchange these plants for herbs, chives, daffodil, periwinkle, marigold, lily of the valley, maple and birch.
Myth #8: You can’t catch Lyme disease unless a tick has bitten you. Carlomagno found that LD can be transmitted from mother to baby in utero and Schmidt found it present in breast milk. I have seen multiple family members with Lyme or other tick-borne illnesses so it is important to get the whole family tested if multiple members are symptomatic. Additionally, Bransfield mentioned some autistic children testing positive for Lyme disease (20-30%) and Mycoplasma (58%) had improvement of their symptoms with antibiotic treatment, showing that infection may mimic some symptoms of autism.
It is very important to see a physician at the first signs of illness, as Dr. Krause has shown that early diagnosis and treatment greatly reduce length and severity of symptoms. Lastly, natural treatments like Samento and Banderol, have been proven in vitro by Eva Sapi to work better on Lyme disease than the standard doxycycline! These natural products can stop the many forms of LD, including cyst forms, and can even breakdown its biofilm layer, making it very important to explore natural methods of treatment.