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What Autoimmune Diseases Are Associated With Lyme?

Lyme disease can develop in people who are bitten by a tick infected with the Borrelia Burgdorferi bacteria. It takes roughly 24–36 hours for the tick to pass on the infectious bacteria to humans through feeding. Once that happens, the bacterium goes through the body, potentially affecting multiple aspects of overall health (including triggering several autoimmune diseases associated with Lyme).

There are over 40 symptoms associated with Lyme disease, all of which can present in a severe and debilitating manner. Diagnosing and treating Lyme disease comes with its own challenges because it can present similarly to other diseases. In some cases, post-treatment symptoms can still occur. The bacteria can evade the immune system well, leading to long-term infectious and adverse health effects.

While Lyme disease can cause severe health issues and permanent damage to tissues, organs, and joints, new research is shedding light on what other detrimental effects a Lyme infection can have. Researchers have found a connection with one specific type of disease, known as autoimmune disease. But what autoimmune diseases are associated with Lyme, and why does the bacterial infection drive the onset of these diseases in otherwise healthy individuals? Let’s investigate.

Does Lyme disease compromise your immune system?

To understand how Lyme disease affects the immune system, we must first understand how the immune system works. There are two parts: innate and adaptive. When the borrelia bacteria enters the body and infects cells, the innate system is alerted to a threat. It doesn’t have specifics; it just knows that something in the body is causing damage.

The innate immune system lights up the affected area with inflammation so that the adaptive immune system can take charge and kill the pathogen causing harm. The adaptive immune system has specialized cells designed to “remember” specific pathogens to better fight them off.  

Research has examined how the immune system is negatively affected by Lyme disease and found the association is due to how the bacteria alters immune cells. These cells, known as dendritic cells, are supposed to boost the immune response by marking bacteria so that T-cells know where to go and what to fight off. But when they encounter the borrelia bacteria, they are altered, thus lessening their effectiveness against Lyme disease. The alteration hinders the communication between dendritic cells and T-cells, leading to issues with how the immune system responds to pathogens.

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Image by CDC on Unsplash: Can Lyme disease compromise your immune system?

Lyme disease and the autoimmune connection

Because of how Lyme disease affects the immune system response, it has also been shown to be connected to certain autoimmune diseases. An autoimmune disease occurs when immune cells become confused and attack healthy cells and tissues instead of pathogens. It’s a form of cellular friendly fire that can wreak havoc on the body.

In the case of Lyme, autoimmune diseases are thought to develop because of the miscommunication between dendritic cells and T-cells caused by the Lyme bacteria. The T-cells know there is a threat, but the borrelia bacteria has begun disguising itself within the body to evade detection. When that happens, T-cells do not have anywhere to place their energy and start attacking healthy cells and tissues instead. 

What autoimmune diseases are caused by Lyme disease?

Medical researchers are still unsure what causes autoimmune disease, but this new research on Lyme disease has shown that there are more risk factors to consider. Studies on the connection between Lyme and autoimmune diseases has found that many of these conditions are associated with the bacterial infection, such as:

  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Dermatomyositis (DM)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • Psoriatic arthritis (PsA)
  • Spondylarthritis (SpA)
  • Thyroid disease
  • Lupus
  • Autoimmune neuropathy
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica

Each of these conditions is driven by the immune system attacking the body. That said, the area of the body that’s damaged may be slightly different across the board. For example, RA, PsA, and SpA all affect the joints because they are types of arthritis. However, other autoimmune diseases that cause damage elsewhere in the body can also be associated with Lyme disease, such as Sjogren’s syndrome.

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Image by ANIRUDH on Unsplash: What’s the connection between autoimmune disease and Lyme disease?

What other diseases can Lyme disease cause?

Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness, but it’s not the only one. A person infected with Lyme disease may also be at risk for other infections. Ticks can carry more than one infection at a time, and if you’re bitten, any of these may be passed on to you. Some of the most notable conditions that can develop because of tick-borne infections include:

  • Babesiosis
  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF)
  • Human Granulocytic Anaplasmosis (HGA)
  • Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI)

While Lyme disease doesn’t cause these other infections, the tick that passed on Lyme disease could also harbor them. Many symptoms associated with Lyme disease may also present like other types of conditions, making it difficult to discern between them, especially if a person is unaware that they were bitten by a tick in the first place.

The research surrounding Lyme disease and its detrimental effects on human health, including an increased risk of developing autoimmune disease, continues. Medical researchers hope to one day have more definitive answers, but until then, the best thing to do to avoid tick-borne illness and the ensuing issues is to protect yourself from tick bites, especially when visiting wooded areas.

Featured image by Shane on Unsplash

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