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In treating Lyme disease, more and more antibiotics aren't the answer, according to a recent Dutch study.

Lyme disease is an infection that doesn't surrender to treatment easily. Transmitted by tick bites mostly to young and active people out enjoying nature, the infection can cause rashes, muscle aches, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes that give way to even more rashes, even more headaches and joint pain, heart rhythm issues, aches and pains all over, depression, brain fog, and, often, a condition called Bell's palsy, causing paralysis of one side of the face. 

The causative agent in Lyme disease is a microorganism named Borrelia burgdorferi. This microbe is a kind of bacterium called a spirochete, which has the ability essentially to roll itself into a ball to escape detection by the immune system and to minimize contact with antibiotics. As a result, it takes time to treat Lyme disease with antibiotics, and once doctors put their patients on antibiotic treatment, they tend to keep them on the treatments for weeks or months at a time. However, a recent study found that using antibiotics for too long actually makes symptoms worse.

How Long Is Too Long for Antibiotic Treatment for Lyme Disease?

Doctors at the Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen in the Netherlands studied newly diagnosed Lyme disease patients. All the patients were given an antibiotic called cefrtriaxone (Rocephin) by IV every day for the first two weeks. Then the patients were divided into three groups. One group received doxocycline (which is available under a number of brand names, including Doryx, Oracea, Monodox, Atridox, Morgidox, Vibra-Tabs, Alodox, Ocudox, Doxy, Acticlate, and Vibramycin), which is commonly used to treat bacterial infections, for the next twelve weeks. Another group received a combination of two antibiotics, clarithromycin (Biaxin) and hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), which are more commonly given for parasitic infections, for twelve weeks. The third group received a placebo. Then the doctors measured the residual symptoms in the three groups.

All three groups of patients were better at the end of twelve weeks. However, the group that had received the combination of medications had more symptoms than the group that had received just one antibiotic, and the group that had received no medication at all had the least symptoms at all.

What If Lyme Disease Treatment Goes on for Years?

While the media and the Internet tend to report the very worst cases of Lyme disease, about 80 percent of people who get the disease get over it in a few weeks. In 10 to 20 percent of people who have Lyme disease, however, the symptoms go on for months or years.

Other studies have looked at long-term antibiotic therapy for Lyme disease. The Persistent Lyme Empiric Antibiotic Study Europe (PLEASE) study involved 280 people who had symptoms, on average, for 2-1/2 years. These were people who had had the bulls eye rash or persistently achy joints or other symptoms of Lyme disease for years, but who had not been diagnosed at the likely time of the tick bite. Everyone was given Rocephin by IV for 14 days to "knock out" the infection, and then they were given the same treatment options as the groups mentioned above. When symptoms were longstanding, doxocycline was superior in controlling Lyme disease to placebo, but not by much, and about half the people who received antibiotics had problems with diarrhea, nausea, or allergic rashes. These problems did not occur in the placebo group.

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