Lyme Disease: The Basics
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Australian Lyme patients, including those who suspected a Lyme infection, should be aware that the Australian Government’s perspective and guidelines on Lyme differ from those of the Lyme Disease Association of Australia (LDAA), and other governments and authorities internationally. While we touch on Australia’s approach throughout this site, you can read a full explanation about the Lyme situation in Australia on the Australian Lyme page.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by a spiral-shaped bacterium (spirochete), Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb). Lyme disease is also known as Lyme Borreliosis or simply Borreliosis.
There are roughly two dozen species in the Borrelia burgdorferi “sensu lato complex” (which means in the broadest sense). Not all are human pathogens.
Spirochetes (spy-ro-keets) are high-functioning and invasive pathogens. They are often relapsing in nature, difficult to detect, and are great imitators of other diseases. Syphilis, Relapsing Fever and Leptospirosis are other examples of spirochetal diseases.
Acute Lyme disease symptoms include (but are not limited to) a rash, joint pain and headaches. Arthritic pain, cognitive difficulties, fatigue and other debilitating symptoms characterise Late stage or Chronic Lyme disease. Lyme, early or late, has a profound effect on a patient’s life.
If treated early, some patients might not experience ongoing symptoms. Lyme disease often becomes chronic, and this is a multi-systemic, debilitating illness that affects the immune system and physical condition. Lyme can affect every tissue and organ in the body.
Lyme disease is poorly understood, complex and and viewed in some quarters as controversial – despite significant published research demonstrating otherwise.
“I take a broad view of what Lyme disease actually is. Traditionally, Lyme is defined as an infectious illness caused by the spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb). While this is certainly technically correct, clinically the illness often is much more than that…Dr Joseph Burrascano, International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS) 2008
I think of Lyme as the illness that results from the bite of an infected tick. This includes infection not only with B. burgdorferi, but the many co-infections that may also result.”
Lyme locations (endemicity)
According to the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Lyme disease is currently endemic in North America, parts of Europe and Northern Asia.
However, infections of Lyme disease have been reported in many other countries, including Australia.
Where in the world is Lyme disease [PDF 810KB]
Transmission of Lyme
Humans usually contract Borrelia via the bite of an infected Ixodes tick, and the tick contracts the infection from another host species.
Most Lyme patients contract other tick-borne diseases (co-infections) because ticks transmit multiple pathogens (infections, e.g. bacteria and viruses) via a single bite.
Borrelia can be transmitted via other methods, preliminary scientific studies suggest. These include:
- other vectors (e.g. insects – mosquitoes, midges and others)
- human body fluids
- placental transfer and breast milk.
Currently, the Australian Government does not recognise these other transmission methods.
Symptoms of Lyme
The International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS) lists the following common Lyme symptoms and signs.
Common symptoms of early Lyme disease include:
- Erythema Migrans rash (EM)
- Fatigue, malaise
- Flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, arthralgias (joint pain), myalgias (muscle aches)
- Stiff neck
- Dysesthesia (painful burning, prickling, or aching feeling)
- Lymphadenopathy (lymph nodes abnormal in size or consistency)
- Facial nerve dysfunction leading to weakness or paralysis of facial muscles (often mislabeled as Bell’s palsy).
Either a solid, spreading rash, resembling a bacterial infection/cellulitis or spider bite or a bullseye rash (left) is present in approximately 50 percent of those with Lyme disease.
The bullseye rash, Erythema Migrans (EM) is a “classic” sign of Lyme but only occurs in 20-25 percent of patients. (Dr Richard Horowitz)
Common symptoms of late stage or chronic Lyme include:
- Multiple red rashes (EMs)
- Severe headaches and neck stiffness
- Joint swelling and/or pain
- Neuropathic symptoms – nerve pain, numbness, hot/cold sensations, tingling
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Memory impairment
- Unprovoked pain which may interfere with sleep
- Palpitations or chest pain, shortness of breath
- Lightheadedness, fainting
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Psychiatric symptoms- including depression, anxiety, and mood changes.
Lyme patients usually have co-infections and other pathogens besides Borrelia and may experience the reactivation of latent viruses (e.g. Epstein Barr virus) and will commonly have parasitic and fungal infections as well.
The overall ‘symptom complex’ may include: immune dysfunction; inflammation; environmental toxicity; allergies; nutritional and enzyme deficiencies, with functional medicine abnormalities in biochemical pathways; mitochondrial dysfunction; neuropsychological issues, autonomic nervous system dysfunction, endocrine abnormalities, sleep disorders; gastrointestinal abnormalities, with abnormal liver functions; and issues with pain, drug use and physical deconditioning.Dr Richard Horowitz
In 1977, an unusual outbreak of illness occurred in the American town of Lyme, Connecticut. Thought to be a form of juvenile arthritis, it was given the name “Lyme arthritis”.
Investigation revealed the illness to be more complicated. It included “a combination of cardiac, neurologic and rheumatologic presentations, including heart block, meningitis and Bell’s palsy.” The more general name of Lyme disease replaced Lyme arthritis because of this. The cause of the illness was then unknown.
Borrelia was discovered as the cause of Lyme disease in 1982 so the name was further tweaked to Lyme Borreliosis.
Some doctors began to use ‘Lyme disease’ as an overarching term that included co-infections. The International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS) members agreed to extend the definition of Lyme disease to include co-infections.
In 2018 the Australian Department of Health named Chronic Lyme disease (contracted in Australia), which they consider to be a mystery illness, “Debilitating Symptom Complexes Attributed To Ticks (DSCATT)”.
However, DSCATT is not considered to be a diagnosis. (See also Australian Lyme).
The Lyme Disease Association of Australia (LDAA) uses the terms Australian Lyme or Lyme disease for the Lyme and co-infection complex, depending where it was contracted.