As Lyme disease becomes more prevalent all over the world, experts are continuing to study how the condition affects us. In truth, much of Lyme disease is still a mystery to us, despite the fact that we know exactly where it comes from and how it presents. This cognitive dissonance is best illustrated by the fact that chronic Lyme disease, the long-term form of the disorder, isn’t even regarded as a legitimate condition by the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So in an effort to understand what is fast becoming one of the most widespread disorders on the planet, Lyme specialists are utilising studies and statistics to glean insight into how the disease operates. One of the primary questions is in regard to gender. Does Lyme strike equally, or are women more at risk for Lyme disease than men?
First, some background. When we talk about Lyme, we are actually talking about two distinct conditions: acute Lyme and chronic Lyme. The former is a widely accepted disorder, while the latter resides in a medical grey area, and will stay there for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for patients, chronic Lyme is consistently the most debilitating form of the disease, despite the fact that it is still widely misunderstood and subsequently misdiagnosed. Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which is transmitted to humans via tick bite. A few days or weeks after infection, the acute symptoms will begin. These mostly resemble flu, and if the patient hasn’t noticed the initial tick bite, can easily be written off as harmless.
Doing so, however, will allow the disease time to mutate into the chronic form. These symptoms might not emerge until months or even years after the acute stage recedes, but when they do, they can be severely debilitating. Chronic Lyme disease symptoms are generalised and non-specific, contributing to its continued misdiagnosis. They involve both infection and inflammation issues. The former is caused by the Borrelia bacteria still in the system, while the latter is due to the immune system’s over-aggressive response to it. This interplay of symptoms can vary hugely from patient to patient, making diagnosis difficult. Treatment is also complicated, as antibiotics, traditionally used successfully to dispel Lyme, won’t have any effect on the inflammation symptoms.
But taking the individual patient discrepancies into account, does Lyme disease affect women differently than men? A recent study would suggest that it does. According to a very recent BMC Public Health Study, which analysed patients in England and Wales between the years 1998 and 2015, chronic Lyme patients are predominantly female, and older in age. Over 2,300 patients with the condition were analysed over the years, and of all the cases analysed 60% were women or girls. New cases of the disease peaked between the ages of 6 and 10, and again at 61 to 65. According to Dr. John Tulloch, who led the study, these results should be taken with a grain of salt, as women are more likely to seek medical advice than men, which could have partly affected the study. The results, which also saw an overall increase in cases, could also indicate rising awareness of Lyme disease over the years.
The BMC study is not the first conducted on gender disparity in Lyme. A study from Atlanta in 2012 suggested that women display more clinical symptoms of the disease than men, and are also less likely to seroconvert (the time taken for a specific antibody to develop and become detectable in the immune system) than men. In the study, significantly more women than men reported muscle pain, joint pain, headache, numbness, anxiety and a host of other symptoms. The scientists involved concluded that results suggested there is a difference between how men and women respond to Borrelia infection. The hypothesis presented upon the results was that there may be an immunological variation based on gender. This is an interesting theory, and one that will inevitably require further research.
A final study from ten years ago also looked at the implications of gender in chronic Lyme disease. This particular study found that although men are more likely to suffer from Lyme disease in general, women are more prone to conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, which are continually misdiagnosed as chronic Lyme (and vice versa). They argue that, if chronic Lyme is a result of prolonged Borrelia burgdorferi infection, then we may reasonably expect the statistics to stay consistent. However, this is not the case, with females overtaking males in patient numbers as the disease turns chronic. Because of chronic Lyme’s confusing status, whereby studies are being conducted on a disease that apparently doesn’t really exist, the truth remains obscured.
Do more women have Lyme disease than men? The muddied waters surrounding the disease make it hard to say for sure. It’s important to remember that Lyme is not a unified condition. It’s very complicated, and because of that, many people are still confused over its true nature. In this instance, and others like it, more research is required by Lyme experts. Even most doctors aren’t fully Lyme-literate; only a few specialist labs, like BCA-Clinic in Augsburg, Germany, fully understand the disease. In order to combat the condition effectively, knowledge about its tendencies and habits must become more widespread.