In recent years, there has been a growing concern about Lyme disease, as more people are being diagnosed with the disease around the world. Originally thought to be primarily a North American concern, Lyme disease is found to be prevalent in many countries, and while we know a little bit about it, there is still a lot more to understand. If caught early enough, Lyme disease is completely curable – however, if left too long, it can also have long-term, permanent effects on the body.
Lyme disease is an infectious, or parasitic, disease. The cause of Lyme disease is being bitten by a tick that is carrying the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Fortunately, not all ticks carry this bacterium, but with the increase in tick populations lately, it is important to know the basics about Lyme disease, the symptoms of Lyme disease, and what to do if you are bitten by a tick.
The symptoms of Lyme disease can be very difficult to pinpoint, as they often present themselves as symptoms of a regular flu, such as headache, dizziness, fatigue, sore muscles and fever. One very clear tell-tale sign of being bitten by an infected tick is the bull’s eye rash that can appear, called ‘Erythema migrans’, although this rash does not always appear. The other tricky part about the symptoms of Lyme disease is that they do not usually show up until 7–14 days after being bitten by an infected tick, making the connection to a tick bite harder to recognize. If caught and identified early enough, a strong regime of antibiotics can usually cure people of Lyme disease. If left alone, however, the symptoms of Lyme disease can become chronic, resulting in permanent chronic pain in joints and muscles, facial palsy, and/or neurological problems such as swelling of the membranes around your brain (meningitis) or numbness/weakness in your limbs.
So, can Lyme disease affect red blood cell count? In short, the disease on its own does not have any effect on a patient’s red blood cell count. However, when it is combined with an additional co-infection called Babesiosis, which stems from the Babesia microti bacteria that can sometimes be present in ticks, it can cause a certain form of anaemia called haemolytic anaemia. Babesiosis is caused by tiny parasites that infect red blood cells, and it is primarily contracted by tick bites or transfusions. While primarily a problem in the United States, the number of patients being diagnosed with Babesiosis around the world has been increasing in recent years. The infection can range in severity from little to no symptoms to being life-threatening. People who are older, people who have compromised immune systems, or those who have decreased spleen function are at a much higher risk. The symptoms of the Babesiosis infection are very similar to those present in patients with Lyme disease. The symptoms include fever, malaise, fatigue, sore muscles, headache and nausea. Not all patients will experience all symptoms, but these are the most commonly reported ones.
The Babesiosis infection, at its most serious, can cause low blood platelet count, small blood clots in the bloodstream, respiratory distress, renal failure, altered mental state and even death. (Source) It can also cause haemolytic anaemia, which is a condition where red blood cells are destroyed faster than they can be made. Red blood cells are important to the body, as they are what carries oxygen to all of the parts of the body. If you have a low red blood cell count, then you are what is considered to be anaemic. In addition to the vague symptoms that Lyme disease presents, such as fatigue, general feelings of sickness, sore muscles and dizziness, the Babesiosis infection can also cause dark urine as well as yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, which are signs of haemolytic anaemia. It is this connection to the Babesiosis infection that can affect the red blood cell count in patients with Lyme disease.
It is important to note that not all patients experience symptoms or fevers, making this infection difficult to diagnose. Getting in to your doctor immediately and undergoing tests is important, if you have been bitten by a tick, as both Lyme disease and Babesiosis can be treated with a regime of antibiotics if caught in time. Haemolytic anaemia caused by the Babesiosis infection can also be treated with blood transfusions, surgery, or blood and marrow stem cells transplants, if necessary. The presence of the Babesiosis infection can be determined by the light-microscopic examination of a blood smear. Sometimes, it can be difficult to distinguish between the Babesia parasites and malaria parasites, making repeated laboratory testing necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Due to the link between the Babesiosis infection and Lyme disease, there is a strong likelihood that if a patient is diagnosed with Babesiosis, then they will also have contracted Lyme disease, and a strong regime of antibiotics should be started immediately to counter both infections.
There are two ways to test for Lyme disease: through Humoral Immune System Tests and Cellular Immune System Tests. It is best to get a direct confirmation of the existence of the Borrelia bacteria, but this is not always possible, so there are alternate tests to confirm the disease. The humoral immune system is the part of our immune system that produces antibodies to fight infection. By the humoral immune system, doctors can confirm the presence or absence of antibodies, thus confirming whether or not the body is fighting the bacteria’s infection. The cellular immune system tests look at the activity of the antibodies on a cellular level.
By observing the symptoms present and seeing your doctor for testing as soon as possible, you will be able to confirm whether or not you are, in fact, suffering from Lyme disease and/or the Babesiosis infection, which could be impacting your red blood cell count. Starting on antibiotics as soon as possible is your best course of action.