Lyme disease operates insidiously in many ways. The actual mechanism of the disease, which essentially forces the immune system to attack the body, is one significant way. The base statistics, which are currently estimated to be 300,000 new cases a year, are yet another; it’s assumed that there are far more incidences of Lyme out there, due to underreporting and continued misdiagnosis. A third primary way that Lyme disease acts insidiously is that it rarely infects a patient alone. Through a single tick bite, the Lyme causative Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria can potentially be transmitted. However, many other strains of bacteria also have the potential to be transmitted. These are called Lyme co-infections, and one of the most common is known as anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis.
As chronic Lyme disease struggles to be viewed as a legitimate disorder itself, very little is known about the spectrum of co-infections a patient can potentially catch simultaneously. However, it is vitally important to treat these co-infections in tandem with the predominant Lyme infection, as they can have a severe impact on a patient’s health. Some act independently of the Borrelia burgdorferi infection, and some compound the symptoms of it. If they are missed, some strains of co-infection can re-ignite Lyme symptoms, even if the original infection has been eradicated. This leads to confusion, frustration and suffering for both patients and doctors alike. Unfortunately, to catch all the potential signs of co-infection, you need a highly literate Lyme doctor. Many medical professionals are under-equipped to deal with this particular area.
What Is Anaplasmosis/Ehrlichiosis?
It’s got an intimidating-sounding name, but what exactly is anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis? Anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis are two separate but closely related conditions. They are spread through two different species of tick, but their symptoms remain largely consistent. Anaplasmosis, formerly known as “human granulocytic ehrlichiosis” (HGE), is spread through black-legged deer ticks infected with anaplasma phagocytophilia, the same species that predominantly carries the Lyme bacterium. Ehrlichiosis, sometimes known as “human monocytic ehrlichiosis” (HME), is transmitted to humans via the lone star tick infected with Ehrlichia chaffeensis bacterium. The lone star tick isn’t thought to be responsible for transmitting Lyme, but can transmit STARI (southern tick associated rash illness), a Lyme-esque condition with similar symptoms.
Obviously that’s a lot of information to take in, but it goes to show just how intricate co-infections can be. This is just one of a potential handful of co-infections a patient can contract alongside Lyme. When you take into account that many of the symptoms of these infections mimic or compound the symptoms of the others, it’s understandable how complicated treatment can get, if indeed a successful diagnosis is reached at all. Neither disease can be spread from person to person, and they can affect people of any age.
What are the Symptoms of Anaplasmosis/Ehrlichiosis?
As both conditions produce non-specific symptoms, they can affect patients to differing degrees. They usually appear between 10 to 14 days after the offending tick bite and bear remarkable similarity to acute Lyme symptoms. These come on suddenly, with patients experiencing things like fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and a general sense of malaise. In the case of ehrlichiosis, a rash may also develop on the torso, arms, and legs, but this much rarer in instances of anaplasmosis.
More serious symptoms can also rear their heads if the diseases are left unchecked. Most concerning among these are widespread blood clotting, organ malfunction, seizures, and coma. The symptoms for both diseases are more pronounced if the patient suffers from a weakened immune system. When co-infected with Lyme disease, this is what makes anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis even more dangerous. Chronic Lyme debilitates the immune system by making it overreact to the borrelia bacteria. Even if only trace amounts of this bacteria are present in the system, the immune system gets stuck in a vicious circle, resulting in widespread inflammation and fatigue. With the immune system under so much pressure, infections like anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis are given the perfect chance to wreak havoc, compounding the umbrella Lyme infection further. As both conditions can have significantly devastating results the further they’re allowed to sink their claws in, a weakened immune system provides the perfect opportunity for disastrous results.
How are Anaplasmosis/Ehrlichiosis treated?
Fortunately, it is much easier to cure anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis than it is to cure Lyme disease. If treatment is started early, most people respond rapidly and well; a course of antibiotics (usually for a week or so) will clear up both infections in the majority of cases. Blood tests will determine if either disease is active, but if a doctor suspects either one, treatment will usually begin before results are returned. However, the danger is in the detection. The initial symptoms of both diseases are non-specific and similar to a bad bout of flu. If they are left untreated, the results can be devastating and potentially fatal.
Awareness of this dangerous co-infection is critical. It is also critical that people check themselves for ticks in the same way they would for Lyme disease. Prevention is often the best form of treatment, and if the disease can be cut off at the source, then the patient will be all the better for it. In the meantime, spreading continued awareness about the existence of these Lyme co-infections is highly important, as many of these diseases are easily dealt with if not given a chance to flourish.