As most anyone with Lyme disease is aware, the bacteria that causes the illness hardly ever appears alone. Ticks usually carry multiple infectious organisms — bacterial, viral, and parasitic — like Babesia, Ehrlichia, Powassan virus, and more. One of the main reasons Lyme disease is so difficult to diagnose and treat is the presence of multiple coinfections in each person.
Each person with Lyme carries a different collection of pathogens. Plus, people can even carry different species of the same pathogen. Often, Lyme disease treatments involve understanding and treating every pathogen, which leads to a better chance of full remission.
What is Bartonella?
Bartonella is a microscopic, gram-negative bacteria. Bartonella has been around for thousands of years, and only infects mammals. It has been found in just about every mammal that exists — even in whales and dolphins.
There are many species within the Bartonella genus, at least 17 of which infect humans. (The most well known is cat scratch fever, spread through bacteria in flea feces.) Bartonella can be transmitted alone through lice, fleas and other biting insects. It can also be transmitted as a coinfection of Borrelia, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, which is spread mostly through tick bites.
When Bartonella is spread via tick bite along with Borrelia, symptoms can be much worse and more persistent than a Bartonella infection alone. The two bacteria seem to be synergistic – working together to create an inflammatory cascade that debilitates the human immune system – making both infections more difficult to treat and more likely to become chronic.
All species of Bartonella first infect red blood cells, causing what feels like a bad flu. If the infection persists and becomes chronic, Bartonella goes on to infect endothelial structures (the lining of blood vessels) in many parts of the body, including the endothelial structures in bone marrow, the spleen and liver, and the blood vessels in the heart and brain. It can also infect the lymphatic system. Chronic infections can be more dangerous and difficult to clear than infections in the acute stage.
Symptoms of Bartonella
Though Bartonella rarely appears in large quantities in the body (leading to difficulty with diagnosis), it can cause very severe symptoms and can even be fatal.
In its acute phase, Bartonella causes:
- A high fever
- Extreme headaches (especially in the forehead area)
- Fatigue and malaise
- Gastrointestinal (GI) upset
- Swollen lymph nodes around the site of the insect bite
- A rash that looks like raised stripes along the body (often called Bartonella streaks)
If the host’s immune system is robust, this initial flu will clear the bacteria. It’s also possible for the immune system to silence Bartonella, so the host experiences no further symptoms, but you may continue to harbor the microbe. (In this way, Bartonella may be spread through blood donation.)
If the host’s immune system is weakened, say, by the presence of Borrelia as well as Bartonella, the symptom picture becomes much more severe, widespread, and persistent. Symptoms can include:
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- Relapsing fevers
- Long term cough or even pneumonia
- Muscle pain and arthritis
- Bone pain, especially the soles of the feet
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Brain fog
- Cognitive disorders such as depression, anxiety, and fits of rage known as Bartonella rage
- Blurred vision, eye discharge, and light sensitivity
- Facial paralysis
- Enlarged spleen and liver
- Endocarditis, heart palpitations, and breathlessness
Because Bartonella rarely appears in large quantities in the body, it is difficult to diagnose. The most effective testing is a combination IFA (indirect fluorescence assay), which tests for the presence of antibodies, combined with PCR (polymerase chain reaction), which tests for the presence of bacterial DNA. Even if your tests come back negative, it’s important to discuss your symptom profile with your doctor. False negatives are possible.
As with Lyme and coinfections, these tests aren’t cheap and are very rarely prescribed or paid for by insurance plans. Bartonella is not on the radar of most conventional physicians unless you’ve acquired cat scratch fever. As a Lyme coinfection, you will most likely need to see a specialist and pay out-of-pocket.
Regarding Bartonella treatment, the tick-borne disease does respond to some antibiotics. The most reliable antibiotic treatments involve a combination of two drugs. Treatment can take anywhere from five days to two years (or more), depending on the severity of the case.
Herbal antimicrobials can also be effective at combating Bartonella, or herbs can be used in combination with antibiotics. The upside to herbal therapies is that bacteria, in general, develop less resistance to plants. Also, herbs can support your endothelial structures, lower inflammation, and work to improve your immune system at the same time they kill the bugs. Stephen Buhner has published a Bartonella protocol widely available online.
There are also machines available, such as Wave One or the AmpCoil, that use electromagnetic light frequencies to target Lyme and coinfections. These frequencies are non-invasive and don’t carry the same risk of side effects as antibiotics. They can, however, cause significant Herxheimer reactions, so be sure to use them with care. Ask your doctor for recommendations, and support your detoxification pathways along the way. Over time, you should begin to notice improvements in your Lyme disease symptoms and the symptoms associated with coinfections.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
Buhner, Stephen Harrod. (2013) Healing Lyme Disease Coinfections, Complementary and Holistic Treatments for Bartonella and Mycoplasma. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press.