What is Lyme?

What is Lyme?

Lyme disease (or Lyme Borreliosis) is a potentially serious bacterial infection that often causes debilitating rheumatologic (e.g. joint pain, arthritis, and immune disorders) and neurological symptoms. And, Lyme is frequently accompanied by other tick-borne diseases (called co-infections) that pile on more confusing symptoms.

Lyme disease is caused by a group of bacterial strains called Borrelia burgdorferi (a.k.a. Borrelia),which comes from the same family as syphilis. Bacteria for both Lyme and syphilis are corkscrew-shaped organisms called “spirochetes”.

Since it was discovered by clinicians in 1977 (and later identified by Wilhelm Burgdorfer in 1982), this disease has risen to become the third most notifiable disease in the United States, and one of the most common vector-borne diseases in the Northern Hemisphere – with an estimated 300,000 new cases every year in the United States, alone. (A “notifiable” disease is one that must be reported to the health authorities.)

Borrelia is regarded as one of the most complex microorganisms on the planet, because it is able to evade the immune system by:

  • Changing its form
  • Moving to areas of the body where it is harder to detect
  • Shifting its genetic makeup to mask itself.

These tactics allow Borrelia to avoid complement proteins, and stop the formation of antibodies – which are the immune system’s main defenses against infectious microorganisms.

However, some strains of Borrelia do not simply hide from the immune system. They can also suppress it, allowing other infections and tick-borne coinfections to thrive and spread throughout the body. If left untreated for a prolonged period of time, the bacteria will invade the body’s various tissues, leading to a variety of more complex symptoms involving the:

  • Bones
  • Joints
  • Muscles
  • Brain
  • Other organs and tissues

For a referenced paper on the basics of Lyme disease and its associated co-infections, visit our Lyme Basics For Professionals page.