We can finally see a silver lining, a subsiding of the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2, in large part thanks to the widening availability and administration of vaccines, including two prominent mRNA vaccines which have demonstrated impressive safety and efficacy, both in large clinical trials and the real world.
But this coronavirus and its emerging variants will continue to play a prominent role in public health for years to come. SARS-CoV-2 causes complex disease in humans. Some people get severely ill and die, some eventually recover—sort of, and some have only mild and passing symptoms or don’t even notice that they were infected. Infection with this coronavirus also affects various organ systems and can present with confusing symptom pictures. People in certain age groups or with certain preexisting conditions seem to be more vulnerable, though people with no apparent health issues have also contracted the disease and passed away. Even children are not immune, and a rare syndrome—often with delayed onset—has been particularly worrisome: multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C).
Just as curious is the phenomenon of so-called long Covid where individuals recovering from an acute case of Covid-19 experience longterm impairment of their health. The experience of these long haulers is something that sounds exceedingly familiar to anyone who’s a veteran of chronic, or persistent, Lyme disease.
Lyme disease—if you’re not familiar with it—is a widespread tick-borne disease caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi (in our region, at least), a spirochete that is very adaptable and capable of circumventing or overcoming our immune defenses. It is commonly transmitted by deer ticks (sometimes by other vectors and very rarely directly from human to human) and can be accompanied by co-infections residing in these same critters. Lyme disease affects many outdoor recreationists, including gardeners.
One of the big differences between Lyme disease and Covid-19 is that SARS-CoV-2 is a virus and Borrelia spp. are bacteria. This means that Lyme is treatable with suitable antibiotics (at least in most cases) whereas coronavirus infections are not.
On the other hand, both types of infections are not all that easily diagnosed with available laboratory tests. In fact, Lyme is notoriously difficult to diagnose to allow timely treatment with conventional antibiotics. Like Covid, Lyme often starts with general flu-like symptoms and malaise but can also go unnoticed if the symptoms are mild or unspecific. In the case of Lyme, it generally takes four to six weeks after exposure until enough antibodies are produced by the body to show up in sensitive tests, like a Western blot.
A serious challenge facing the Lyme community of patients, providers and advocates is the meager funding of research into diagnosis and treatment, especially compared to other infectious diseases and in contrast to Covid-19. After decades of spread, Lyme disease still flies under the radar of countless primary care physicians, even in regions like the Northeast, where Lyme is endemic. Many people suffering from unresolved Lyme disease visit doctor after doctor, often for years on end, until finally receiving a diagnosis for their disabling and debilitating condition.
We should be hopeful, though, that the attention now paid to long Covid may also open the eyes of the medical community and general public to the complex challenges facing people with longterm health impairment due to Lyme disease and other chronic infections.
If all this makes your skin crawl before you’re heading out into nature—or even just your backyard, take heart! We now have more and more high-quality resources to learn how to protect ourselves from tick-borne diseases and to support recovering patients through a multi-disciplinary approach that includes preventive strategies and a wide range of holistic therapies to restore immunocompetence and good health. We can leverage nutrition, botanical medicine, acupuncture, and other modalities to support and expand the work conventional medicine may offer.
Make yourself knowledgeable about managing the risk of tick exposure, checking for and removing ticks, and what to do next if you find a tick or suspect that you got bitten. Take a look at my earlier articles about integrative approaches to Lyme disease and prevention strategies. Visit the websites of some of the nonprofits that educate professionals and the public about Lyme, e.g. LymeDisease.org, GlobalLymeAlliance.org, and ILADS.org (as well as several others).
A recent book by naturopathic physician Alexis Chesney is also an invaluable resource and quick reference, well worth having on your bookshelf: “Preventing Lyme & Other Tick-Borne Diseases.” If you have unexplained symptoms and suspect that you may have Lyme or other tick-borne diseases, don’t rest on your laurels but find a Lyme-literate medical doctor, nurse practitioner or holistic provider such as a doctor of Chinese medicine or naturopath specializing in Lyme and chronic infectious diseases. Even if you respond well to an initial course of doxycycline after suspected infection, you may not be fully out of the woods (figuratively speaking) and require further integrative care to get your health back.
© 2021 Christiane Siebert