Debra Paul’s recounts of Chronic Lyme as transcribed by Melissa Ruiz
Part II: Cause and Effect.
Hello again, readers! I hope you are all well.
Last week I introduced this series to spread awareness about this awful disease, Lyme disease. This week I will go deeper into the cause and symptoms of the illness.
To recap, Lyme disease is an illness caused by a bite from a tick infected with the bacterium borrelia, specifically Borrelia burgdorferi. There are different types of this specific bacterium in different parts of the world, and the different variations cause different patterns of illness (so the typical case of Lyme disease in the US could be different from in the UK).
Fun fact (or maybe not so fun), Lyme disease gets its name from the small Connecticut town where it was first discovered, a hop, skip, and a jump from our own towns. According to an article from the Delaware Health and Social Services, a woman brought an unusual cluster of pediatric arthritis cases to the attention of Yale researchers in 1975. Two years later, the researchers identified the clusters and called them “Lyme arthritis”. Then two years after that, the name was changed to what we know it as today, when additional symptoms, like neurological problems and severe fatigue were linked to the illness.
The cause of the disease wasn’t discovered until 1982 when Dr. Burgdorfer, an international leader in the field of medical entomology at the time, had published a paper on the infectious agent of Lyme, getting his name placed on the spirochete that causes the disease.
The bacteria in question lives in the blood of certain animals such as mice, some birds and some other small animals, and is usually harmless in them (as the saying goes, ‘Oh, to be a bird…’).
The ticks that spread the disease get the bacteria by feeding on these creatures by latching and sucking their blood. Should one of these infected ticks bite a human, then they become they become at risk for developing Lyme disease. After a human is bit, it usually takes about 24-48 hours for the bacteria to pass into their system. If the tick is removed soon after being bitten (within 24 hours), the person is less likely to develop Lyme disease, even if the tick was infected. Unfortunately, these nasty little buggers (puns again) are very small, so it’s very easy to have a tick latched onto you without noticing, and many people who develop Lyme don’t even remember being bitten in the first place. Nice, huh?
Once the bacteria is passed into the skin, they multiply and travel into the bloodstream and then to other parts of the body (mainly the skin, joints, nerves and heart) to raise all sorts of Hell.
The symptoms and effects of the illness are divided into three different stages:
The classic sign of Lyme is a rash called erythema migrans, better known as the “bullseye rash”. The rash typically starts out as a single, circular red mark where the bite first occurred that spreads slowly outward over several days. The rash is usually not painful or itchy, and may even go unnoticed if the bite had happened on your back, and certain species of the bacterium don’t even cause the rash in the first place. And just because the rash fades, it unfortunately doesn’t mean the infection has faded along with it.
Flu-like symptoms usually occur in about a third of cases, which include fatigue, aches and pains, headache, fever, chills and neck stiffness. Often times, these symptoms are mild and go away within a few days, even without any treatment. In some cases, if the infection is present, the body’s immune system will keep it from progressing further. However, in other less fortunate cases, the disease can progress to stage two.
Stage two Lyme, or Early Disseminated Lyme’s symptoms can include joint problems in one or more joints, but most commonly the knee joint. The severity of these issues can range from episodes of mild pains, to severe arthritis. The episodes typically last around three months.
Some infected people will develop inflammation of the nerves, particularly around the face, causing the nerves to stop working and may cause drooping in the side of the face. Furthermore, inflammation of the tissues around the brain and of the brain itself (meningitis and encephalitis, respectively) can occur (as if it wasn’t bad enough, right?).
Some people may develop myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart and other cardiac issues. This can cause symptoms like dizziness, breathlessness, chest pain and palpitations.
Several areas of the skin can develop rash elsewhere from where the tick bite occurred. These “secondary” rashes are usually smaller than the original rash, and tend to fade within three to four weeks. Occasionally, blue-red nodules called lympocytomas may form on the skin.
Then on to stage three: Late Lyme disease, which can develop months to years after the tick bite occurred, and can even develop after a time of not having any symptoms (like a thief in the night).
This later stage comes with symptoms including ongoing arthritis, mental impairments such as confusion, problems with memory and concentration, mood changes, balance problems/vertigo, and occasionally schizophrenic-like illness, loss of sensation in fingers and toes, and skin changes.
Now all of these stages are terrible, but stay seated, because it gets worse.
Post-Treatment Lyme Disease (PTLD) or Chronic Lyme Disease refers to symptoms that do not settle down, even after going through treatments for the disease. Enter your Publisher, stage left. According to LymeDisease.org, Chronic Lyme patients suffer from a worse quality of life than compared to most other chronic illnesses, including Multiple Sclerosis and Congestive Heart Failure. In a survey done by Lymedisease.org, over 40 percent of patients with Chronic Lyme report that they are unable to work.
I could be (and by all rights, should be) one of these people. The disease has taken so much out of me, but I continue to fight, day after day, for the people of my communities.
One day I will take it easy, one day I will heal, but until then, I fight the good fight, and take this opportunity to hopefully educate some of you and make a difference in your lives.
Until next time, be well!
Debra Paul is the publisher of three weekly newspapers in New Hampshire.