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Are the symptoms of chronic Lyme Disease making your life hell? You wouldn't be the first to turn to prolonged courses of antibiotics, but science shows there's no merit to this "treatment".

Lyme Disease is an infectious disease caused by a tick-borne bacterium — Borrelia Burgdorferi — and as such, it makes sense to treat people who tested positive for it with antibiotics. The kind of antibiotics used in the treatment Lyme Disease depend on the stage of the disease, the patient's general health, and the their age. Stage 1 Lyme Disease is, for instance, typically fought with amoxicillin, doxycycline, or cefuroxime axetil, all of which are also safe for children. [1] People with Stage 2 and 3 Lyme Disease may be prescribed heavier antibiotics, and typically for much longer. 

Why don't antibiotics work for "chronic Lyme Disease"? To answer that question, we first have to look at what so-called chronic Lyme Disease is, and what it isn't. 

First Things First: What Is 'Chronic Lyme Disease'?

People tend to colloquially slap the adjective "chronic" onto any medical condition that lasts a long time. In the context of Lyme, you might think "chronic" can refer to two kinds of people — those who have had untreated Lyme Disease for a long time, and those who were already treated for Lyme Disease but are still experiencing a range of unpleasant symptoms in its aftermath. Both these things happen.

It goes without saying that patients in the first category still "qualify" for antibiotics; they have a bacterial infection. These people don't really have "chronic Lyme Disease", but rather simply untreated Lyme Disease, which will usually have progressed to later stages and feature really nasty symptoms like [2]:

  • Bell's Palsy — facial weakness and paralysis
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Swollen joints
  • Muscle pain
  • Headaches

People in the second category — already treated for Lyme Disease after testing positive for Borrelia Burgdorferi antibodies in an ELISA test [2] — may experience anything from [3]:

  • Joint and muscle pain, particularly neck and back pain, sometimes so severe they cannot work or function in daily life
  • Frequent and really horrible headaches
  • Cognitive problems like not being able to concentrate and forgetting things, along with irritability
  • Chronic and extreme fatigue

It's no surprise that people who previously had Lyme Disease and are now battling long-term symptoms that make their quality of life poor might describe their condition as "chronic Lyme Disease". A more accurate name for this condition is, however, post-treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS), also sometimes called post Lyme Disease syndrome (PLDS) [4]. 

So, what's the problem with the term "chronic Lyme Disease"? The main issues are that it has no clinical definition, and that it has often been diagnosed or self-diagnosed in people who have never been diagnosed with Lyme Disease in the first place. This situation, research suggests [3, 5] holds true for between 50 and 88 percent of people diagnosed with "chronic Lyme Disease". The danger here is that you think you're battling one medical condition — based on a symptom list rather than diagnostic tests — while you may be facing something completely different. Misdiagnosis robs you of access to treatment that can actually help you. 

Back to the long-term and persistent effects of Lyme Disease, the real question we should be asking is this: Can antibiotics help with post-treatment Lyme Disease syndrome? 

Can Antibiotics Help With Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome? 

Experiments with prolonged antibiotics have been done on people with post-treatment Lyme Disease syndrome, and some people found they helped reduce symptoms — something you can read all about if you go looking. 

Proponents of prolonged antibiotics in people who have previously been diagnosed with Lyme Disease argue that antibiotics aren't able to thoroughly penetrate the cells in which the bacteria causing Lyme Disease may "hang out" and that Borrelia Burgdorferi is resistant to short-term antibiotics due to its round shape [3]. 

Several studies have been conducted into the efficacy of long-term intravenous antibiotics in people with a well-documented history of Lyme Disease (the research does not, in other words, apply to those who were never diagnosed with it), and here's what it found [4]:

  • Intravenous antibiotics did not improve the quality of life of patients with persistent symptoms following a Lyme Disease diagnosis, according to one study. 
  • Several other studies revealed that people with previous Lyme Disease are likely to report improved fatigue levels after long-term antibiotics, but cognitive symptoms did not get better. 

Why Not Try Antibiotics If My 'Chronic Lyme Disease' Might Get Better?

One obvious reason is the now extremely well-developed trend of antibiotic resistance [5]. Antibiotics have saved many millions of lives since they appeared on the scene, and if we want them to keep doing so rather than being sent back to the dark ages in which people could die from a simple cut or an infection after childbirth, we need to use them wisely. That does not involve using long courses of antibiotics for purposes not backed up by science. 

To name another reason, people have died from septic shock after long intravenous courses of antibiotics for "chronic Lyme Disease" [6]. You may think you have nothing to lose by trying prolonged courses of antibiotics — but you do. 

The situation is so bad that the CDC has warned people against both antibiotics in post-Lyme Disease patients who still have symptoms and against alternative treatments for chronic Lyme Disease in general [7]. 

What can you do, then, if you do have symptoms of chronic Lyme Disease? While more research is being conducted, your best bet is to seek treatment for each of the specific symptoms (such as fatigue, joint pain, and so on) you are experiencing, rather than seeking a single treatment that would rid you of all your problems. This may mean turning to a combination of conventional and alternative medicine, but consult your physician before making any decisions.