Lyme has increased in visibility lately, with hundreds of thousands of new cases being confirmed every year. However, we still know comparatively little about this potentially devastating disease. We know there are two distinct forms of it, acute and chronic, and we know that the former is easily treatable while the latter is not. We also know that the Lyme bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, is spread exclusively through tick bites. Most people correctly associate Lyme with tick bites. But comparatively few are aware of the complications that co-infections can cause. Mycoplasma pneumoniae is one of the more prominent co-infections that can infect simultaneously with Lyme disease, and its multi-faced symptoms can be severely debilitating for patients.
Lyme co-infections are dangerous for patients in a number of ways. Initially, they are a concern because they can often go undetected. Lyme itself has a high misdiagnosis rate, with many missed or mistakenly diagnosed cases every year. The variation in intensity and presentation across the spectrum of chronic Lyme symptoms also doesn’t lend itself conclusive diagnosis. Lyme co-infections are often not tested for at all; you need a specialist doctor, well-versed in Lyme disease, to understand all the mechanisms at play. Some co-infections support the symptoms of Lyme, while others will reignite them after the main infection has apparently cleared. This, understandably, leads to much confusion and frustration on the part of the patient.
Mycoplasma pneumoniae on its own is usually relatively mild. Most people have heard of pneumonia, and understand it as a respiratory infection, which can be quite serious in the elderly or young. Mycoplasma pneumoniae is often regarded as a milder form of the more common strain of pneumonia. It is caused by mycoplasma, the smallest bacteria known to science. The individual bacteria are so miniscule that they can’t be viewed with a regular microscope, requiring special equipment to see. For a point of reference, 4,000 mycoplasma can fit in a single red blood cell, compared to another prominent Lyme co-infection, bartonella, which can fit 12. As well as their unique size, mycoplasma are also unusual in the fact that they have no cell wall.
Mycoplasma are a relatively common bacteria, and can be spread via a number of channels. Tick bites and other insect bites are a natural avenue of transmission, but the bacteria can also be spread through inhalation, oral ingestion, and sexual intercourse. As previously stated, in an otherwise healthy person, mycoplasma pneumonia will only cause mild symptoms. However, in a person who is already suffering from Lyme disease, as well as potentially numerous other Lyme co-infections, the effects of mycoplasma pneumoniae can be severe.
The mechanism of Lyme disease corrupts the immune system. In the acute stages, the immune response behaves similarly to many other infections, and the patient will suffer from generic flu-like symptoms. However, as the disease asserts itself within the patient’s system, the immune response can be severely debilitated. In fact, symptoms caused by constant, unchecked inflammation are the primary issues that most chronic Lyme patients complain about. This weakening of the immune response allows co-infections to run rampant through the body, causing more damage than they normally would.
Mycoplasma pneumoniae is not a condition you want to give any kind of advantage. The effect of mycoplasma on the body is actually far more complex and potentially serious than previously thought. Initial symptoms include respiratory issues such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, a persistent cough, and wheezing. However, complications among already compromised patients can affect more than just the chest and lungs. Symptoms in the ears and eyes have been reported, including tinnitus, conjunctivitis, and retinitis. Up to 10% of patients suffer from cardiac complications, and a further 7% report neurological complications, due to the central nervous system becoming inflamed. A quarter of patients also complain of gastrointestinal issues, including vomiting, nausea, and loss of appetite. Finally, mycoplasma is one of the main causes of rheumatoid arthritis, which is also a major symptom of chronic Lyme disease.
It is evident that these two conditions “complement” each other in severely debilitating ways, leading to exacerbated and potentially confusing symptoms for the patient. Therefore, it is important to eradicate the mycoplasma bacteria simultaneously with the Borrelia burgdorferi. The normal diagnostic route for mycoplasma pneumoniae is a PCR (polymerase chain reaction, a common and multi-faceted testing method that copies strands of DNA), conclusively confirmed with an ELISA (essentially a blood test). A full course of antibiotics will then be prescribed to nullify the infection. As with Lyme disease, natural supplements might also be introduced into the patient’s diet to calm the effects of inflammation.
Mycoplasma pneumoniae is just one of a variety of concerning and insidious Lyme co-infections that can lie undetected in a person’s system for years. As we progress our study and response to the growing epidemic of Lyme disease, we must never forget to take these debilitating co-infections into account.