Warm weather brings many opportunities for fun, especially for people who enjoy being outside. Whether it’s hiking, camping, picnicking or simply reading a good book in the garden, the spring and summer months have much to offer in the way of outdoor activities.
But along with opportunities for fun, unfortunately, spending time in nature during the warmer months also brings danger in the form of Lyme disease. This is especially true for people who live in regions where the ticks that carry Lyme infection are common. But Lyme disease has been found on every continent except Antarctica, and cases of Lyme disease are growing at such a high rate that almost anyone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors could be at risk of exposure to Lyme disease.
What is Lyme disease and how is it transmitted?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by a spirochete (corkscrew-shaped) bacterium named Borrelia burgdorferi. This bacterium is carried by rodents and animals like the white-footed mouse and deer that are the preferred hosts of ticks known as Ixodes, deer or black-legged ticks.
When an Ixodes tick feeds on a creature that’s carrying Borrelia burgdorferi, it becomes infected with the bacterium. An infected tick can then transmit Borrelia burgdorferi to humans through a single bite, causing Lyme infection.
People who contract Lyme disease are often bitten by ticks that are still in their nymphal, or immature, phase. Nymphal ticks are tiny – about the size of a poppy seed – and their bite is usually painless, so many of those who have been bitten by a nymphal tick have no idea.
The chance of Lyme infection being transmitted from an infected tick to a human goes up the longer the tick stays attached, so the tiny size and painless bite of nymphal ticks are frightening factors that can increase infection risk.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
Lyme infection can be separated into two phases: acute and chronic. The acute phase is the preliminary stage of Lyme disease and typically includes the following symptoms:
- Erythema migrans, an expanding red rash that sometimes resembles a bullseye
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Joint pain and swelling
- Weakness and paralysis of facial muscles
- Lightheadedness and fainting
- Heart palpitations and chest pain
If Lyme disease is caught within the first few weeks of infection, it may be effectively treated with antibiotics. But if it’s not properly diagnosed or treatment fails, Lyme disease can progress to the chronic phase. Symptoms of chronic Lyme disease are many and varied, but some of the most common ones are:
- Joint pain
- Muscle aches
- Memory loss, trouble concentrating or ‘brain fog’
- Neuropathy (including nerve pain, numbness, or tingling)
- Sleep problems
- Changes in mood
- Digestive issues
What is a Herxheimer reaction and how is it connected to Lyme disease?
Officially known as a Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction (and often called a Herx for short), a Herxheimer reaction occurs when the beginning of an antibiotic treatment course causes a spike in the die-off of spirochetal bacteria. It was named after European dermatologists who were the first to observe that symptoms worsened in syphilis patients being treated with mercurial compounds. This exacerbation of symptoms continued to be observed when penicillin became the main treatment for syphilis, usually occurring within the first 24 hours of treatment.
Like syphilis, Lyme disease is caused by a spirochetal bacterium. Herxheimer reactions sometimes happen to patients with Lyme disease when they first begin antibiotic therapy as a result of the Borrelia burgdorferi dying. The die-off causes your body to release proteins called cytokines. While a moderate amount of cytokines can help boost your immune system, too many of them can cause adverse effects.
Although they are sometimes considered a good thing because they indicate that the medication is working to kill Lyme bacteria, Herxheimer reactions can cause patients experiencing them to suddenly feel very poorly. Herxheimer reactions are characterised by a worsening of existing Lyme symptoms like:
- Memory impairment and/or brain fog
- Nerve and muscle pain
How is a Herxheimer reaction treated?
There’s no question that going through a Herxheimer reaction is difficult, and knowing that it’s a possibility can cause some Lyme patients to delay or even avoid treatment. When they’re already struggling with the symptoms of Lyme disease, the idea of feeling even worse is sometimes unbearable.
Although Herxheimer reactions be a necessary evil when beginning treatment for Lyme disease, there are things you can do to mitigate the damage. Some of the supplements believed to lessen Herxheimer symptoms include:
- Glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that can help the liver process toxins
- Activated charcoal, which may remove toxins from the body by binding to them
- Curcumin, another strong antioxidant that has been shown to reduce inflammation
- Epsom salts, which are used externally for bathing and contain magnesium sulfate for relaxing muscles and drawing toxins
Aside from supplements, lifestyle choices like moderate exercise can alleviate the discomfort of Herxheimer reactions. While working out may be the last thing a Lyme patient experiencing a Herxheimer reaction wants to do, exercising stimulates the body’s lymphatic system, allowing more efficient removal of toxins from the body.
A Herxheimer reaction during Lyme disease treatment can make a bad situation worse, but knowing what to expect and how to support the body during this process arms patients and practitioners alike with the information they need to handle the challenge.