Imagine this. You feel tired most of the time. Going about your normal activities is so exhausting that you skip chores and even fun activities. You have trouble concentrating; your head feels “foggy.” Your joints often hurt, your muscles ache. You feel feverish. It’s hard to breathe sometimes. You have chest pains or heart palpitations. You don’t sleep well anymore. You can’t do your job like you know you should—or at all. You had the flu once—this is what it felt like—but you got over that. This isn’t going away, or if it does, it keeps coming back. Your life is a shambles.
If this sounds familiar, you must know someone with chronic Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium that is spread by deer ticks, which are common here in rural Lycoming County. Whether you are a hunter, a hiker, a home gardener, or just someone who enjoys an occasional outdoor stroll, you are certain to encounter ticks eager to dine on you. Of course, we all know that tick bites can be dangerous.
We know to check for ticks after being outdoors, especially in tall grass. We know what to do if one latches on. But ticks are easy to miss; they are small and they often hide in hard-to-see places on our bodies. The telltale “bulls-eye” rash doesn’t always appear. The infection can be treated with antibiotics, but symptoms can last for months, even after treatment. If it’s not treated at all, the infection can go on to attack your joints, heart, and nervous system, causing the symptoms listed above.
You don’t want that. Ask anyone you know who has chronic Lyme.
You may remember Dr. House, the unconventional TV doctor who excelled at making elusive diagnoses. That show capitalized on the fact that many conditions share the same or similar symptoms. If you recognized the symptoms above you may be thinking of Lyme disease. Or long COVID.
Long COVID and chronic Lyme disease are alike in many ways. Diagnosing them is as much art as science. There is no lab test. Their symptoms are similar and shared by numerous other conditions. Not everyone gets all the symptoms. Some patients fare worse than others.
There’s no single treatment for either. Chronic Lyme disease can be a permanent “new normal” for some patients. It’s too soon to know, but the same may be true for long COVID. COVID-19 is caused by a virus, chronic Lyme by a bacterium. How can they be so similar?
Sometimes our immune systems overreach or lose the ability to distinguish between the germs that infect us and our normal, healthy cells. More than 80 of these autoimmune diseases, including celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and type I diabetes, afflict millions of us.
We don’t know why our bodies attack themselves, but some people are genetically predisposed. Viruses and certain substances in the environment can trigger autoimmune diseases, and studies are showing that this is what happens in chronic Lyme disease and long COVID.
Autoimmune diseases can be treated but not cured.
At best, serious illness means discomfort, pain, enjoyment missed, work time lost, financial impact, and anxiety. Preventing illness is always better than getting sick and recovering. When the illness has a significant chance of causing permanent poor health and reduced quality of life, it just makes sense to play it safe if we can.
If we step on a rusty nail, we get a tetanus shot. If we tangle with a possibly rabid animal, we get the vaccine. When we go hunting or hiking, we use insect repellant, wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants to reduce exposure, and check ourselves and our pets when we return home. Why in the world would we choose not to protect ourselves from long COVID?
Our bodies’ ability to repair themselves is one of those miracles we tend to take for granted. Perhaps instinctive trust in this ability is why so many of us aren’t concerned about getting COVID-19. Please think about these facts:
• The chances of getting long-COVID are higher than you may think; at least 10-30 % of COVID infections lead to long COVID
• Long COVID is more likely after severe infections but it can also develop after mild or asymptomatic cases
• While vaccination doesn’t prevent all long COVID, it lowers the risk
• Having COVID more than once increases the risk of hospitalization, death, and long COVID
• Serious side effects from vaccines are much rarer than long COVID
Never assume. It can do worse than make a “dunce” out of you and me. It can make us miserable for the rest of our lives.
Get vaccinated if you’re not already. Get boosted if you haven’t. They are your best chance of avoiding life-altering long COVID… and months or years of regret.
Michael Heyd, a retired medical librarian from Fairfield Township who spent more than forty years searching the literature for professional hospital staff, is a member of Let’s end COVID!