When it comes to Lyme disease, one of the major problems medical professionals continually face is accurate diagnosis. This is down to a few main reasons, but predominantly it’s because the symptoms of chronic Lyme are so disparate. Lyme was even given the nickname “the Great Imitator” because of its ability to mimic the effects of other chronic disorders. The lack of knowledge and understanding around Lyme is one of the reasons that patients suffer on a long-term basis, as doctors struggle to understand what they’re dealing with. So exactly what kind of disease is Lyme disease? This is a critical question for both patients and doctors alike. It certainly has an effect on the immune response of a patient; but is Lyme disease an autoimmune disorder?
What Is Lyme Disease?
Before we look specifically at how Lyme affects the immune system, let’s take a look at the history of the disease and how it works. Lyme was discovered in 1975 in the Connecticut town of Old Lyme. Since this initial discovery, Lyme has been unable to shake the reputation of being a North American, East Coast disease, despite being present in every state in the U.S. and the vast majority of countries in Europe.
Lyme is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, spread to humans by ticks, namely the black-legged tick in America and the castor bean tick in Europe. Cases are rising every year, and although the disease is receiving more visibility, it remains a threat for many people all over the world.
What Are the Symptoms of Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease comes in two distinct forms: acute and chronic. The acute symptoms present much like the flu, and occur within a few days of infection. They might also be accompanied by a bullseye-shaped rash, which occurs at the site of the bite. This is a prime indicator of Lyme infection. If this is present, then the patient should seek medical care (not emergency care) as soon as possible.
Lyme is easily treated with antibiotics if it is caught in the acute stage. The problem is, unless a rash is noticed, patients will usually just write off their symptoms as a cold or flu. They will resolve in a few days, giving the impression of recovery, but in fact the Borrelia bacteria remains in the patient’s system.
The disease then progresses to its chronic stage, which can result in an intimidating array of symptoms, usually patient-specific. Chronic Lyme represents an interplay of infection and inflammation symptoms. The disease is still very much present within the body, but often the most prominent and painful symptoms result from the immune system’s aggressive response to Lyme. This can cause inflammation all over the body, leading to joint and muscle pain, fatigue, and various other debilitating symptoms.
If the Borrelia bacteria breaches the blood-brain barrier, a condition called neuroborreliosis can occur as a result of infection in the brain. This is just one of the potentially serious complications of chronic Lyme; as stated, the symptoms that can result from chronic infection are so vast that they vary wildly on a patient-by-patient basis.
What Kind of Disease is Lyme Disease?
Lyme is not considered an autoimmune disease by nature. An autoimmune disease is one that causes your body’s defence to attack and damage its own tissue by overactivity, or decreases the body’s ability to fight invading pathogens through lowered activity. Examples of autoimmune disorders include lupus, MS, asthma, and psoriasis. These are not caused by invading bacteria like Lyme. However, Lyme has the qualities of an autoimmune disorder, as it ultimately causes the body to turn on itself.
In the case of chronic Lyme, this is a result of overactivity. It can also suppress immunity by causing inflammation in the gut, leaving patients more vulnerable to other infections and pathogens. So although Lyme isn’t strictly classified as an autoimmune disease, it can still act like one if it is not caught and diagnosed quickly. It is thought that the immune response is triggered by the residual damage of the initial infection. The leftover tissue confuses the immune system, as it’s similar to tissue found in our nervous system, leading to an over-aggressive response.
Once the Lyme infection reaches its chronic stage, diagnosis becomes very difficult. On the one hand, this is because the information surrounding the disease is relatively scarce and many doctors are not educated. On the other hand, Lyme is often mistaken for other autoimmune disorders such as MS, because the symptoms are so similar. This can lead patients down the wrong treatment path for months, or even years.
Chronic Lyme needs to be treated on two fronts to address the two sets of symptoms, infection and inflammation. Only specialist Lyme clinics, such as BCA-clinic in Germany, have the necessary expertise to treat chronic Lyme on both fronts. Infection requires antibiotics, while inflammation requires nutritional adjustments and lifestyle changes to combat the haywire immune response.