As the weather in the Northern Hemisphere continues to grow warmer and leaves finally begin appearing on branches that seem like they’ve been bare for years instead of months, people in this part of the world who have been cooped up indoors for too long are eagerly heading outside. Shedding coats and jumpers, they’re making plans to picnic, play and soak up some long-awaited sunshine.
Unfortunately, even the loveliest ramble through the woods can take a dark turn this time of year. People aren’t the only ones who are stirring from their winter somnolence – ticks, too, are becoming more active, and a bite from the wrong tick can result in Lyme disease.
How is Lyme disease transmitted?
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. This bacterium is a spirochete (pronounced spy-ro-keet), meaning it is shaped like a corkscrew. Borrelia burgdorferi is carried by animals like deer and white-footed mice, among other creatures. These animals are the preferred hosts of deer ticks (also known as Ixodes or black-legged ticks).
When a deer tick feeds on a host carrying Borrelia burgdorferi, it becomes infected with this Lyme-causing bacterium. Once infected, a deer tick can transmit Lyme disease and other infections to a human through a single bite.
What is acute Lyme disease?
Once Lyme disease is transmitted, the infection enters its preliminary phase. This stage is known as acute Lyme disease, and it typically includes the following symptoms:
- An expanding red rash known as Erythema migrans that sometimes resembles a bullseye or target
- Headaches and/or neck stiffness
- Joint pain and swelling
- Weakness and/or paralysis of facial muscles
- Lightheadedness and/or fainting
- Heart palpitations and/or chest pain
The symptoms of acute Lyme disease can be subtle and easily misattributed to other, more common illnesses like influenza. This is especially true in the absence of erythema migrans. Although it’s probably the most well-known of all acute Lyme symptoms, this bullseye rash doesn’t always appear. In fact, research indicates that erythema migrans may occur in only around 10% of Lyme cases, with some people experiencing a more diffuse rash and others having no rash at all.
What is the recommended treatment plan for acute Lyme disease?
When caught within the first two or three weeks of infection, acute Lyme disease can often be successfully treated with antibiotics. Some experts say that up to 90% of acute Lyme infections are cured with antibiotic therapy.
What is chronic Lyme disease?
Although diagnosis and treatment during the acute stage of Lyme disease will ideally prevent the illness from progressing, this isn’t always the case. Lyme disease that continues to persist after treatment is called chronic Lyme disease.
The two stages of Lyme disease share some symptoms, but they also have their own unique characteristics. Some of the symptoms of chronic Lyme disease are:
- Muscle aches
- Joint pain
- Impaired cognition (including memory loss, trouble concentrating or ‘brain fog’)
- Neuropathy (including nerve pain, numbness, or tingling)
- Sleep problems
- Changes in mood
- Digestive issues
As difficult as acute Lyme disease is to diagnose and treat, chronic Lyme disease is even more challenging. For some patients, antibiotic treatment isn’t enough to prevent acute Lyme disease from progressing to the chronic phase. Other people with chronic Lyme infection may not even realize that they’ve been bitten by a tick, so they don’t make the connection between their symptoms and Lyme disease. Likewise, many clinicians simply aren’t knowledgeable about or trained to recognise symptoms of chronic Lyme.
What is the recommended treatment plan for chronic Lyme disease?
Just as chronic Lyme is more complicated than acute Lyme disease, so is its treatment. There is no one unified treatment plan for treating chronic Lyme infection, although antibiotic treatments (both oral and intravenous) usually play a role. Diagnosing and treating the co-infections that often accompany Lyme disease is also important for successful treatment of chronic Lyme.
How are antibiotics used to treat Lyme disease?
Typical antibiotic treatment of acute Lyme disease involves oral administration of doxycycline, amoxicillin or cefuroxime. Patients typically are either prescribed a course of doxycycline alone for 10 days to three weeks, or a combination of cefuroxime and amoxicillin for two to three weeks.
For chronic Lyme disease, practitioners may prescribe longer courses of oral antibiotics and/or intravenous antibiotics, either singly or in combination.
What about herbal therapy for Lyme disease?
Many patients with Lyme disease seek alternative treatments, and herbal therapy is one of the most popular choices. Herbs like Japanese knotweed and astragalus and roots like turmeric can be helpful for reducing symptoms of Lyme disease like inflammation, and can also support the immune system.
Herbalists may have a different understanding of the way Lyme disease affects the body, and they often base their recommendations on traditional use as well as modern science. This broad view can provide a new perspective for patients struggling to find relief from symptoms of Lyme disease.
Herbal therapy vs. classic antibiotic treatment: which one is best?
While antibiotics will likely continue to be the gold standard in treating Lyme disease – especially in the acute phase – more and more patients and practitioners are turning to herbal medicine as a treatment option. So which one is best?
For Lyme patients who can’t tolerate antibiotic treatment, or haven’t responded well to conventional treatment, herbal therapy may be an effective alternative. It’s also understandable that those who’ve had a hard time finding a doctor to diagnose and treat them may turn to herbal practitioners for help.
Ultimately, antibiotic treatment and herbal therapy need not be mutually exclusive. With a condition as complex as chronic Lyme disease, an integrative treatment plan that incorporates conventional medication and herbal therapy can go a long way in managing symptoms.