Unfortunately for those of us with Lyme disease, the Lyme bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi is very rarely the lone pathogen transmitted during a tick bite. Usually, it comes along with various other coinfections – bacterial, viral, and parasitic. The range of possible coinfections is one of the reasons Lyme disease is so difficult to diagnose and treat, and why symptoms range so widely from person to person.
What is Babesia, a Coinfection of Lyme Disease?
One of the many possible Lyme coinfections is a microscopic parasite called Babesia. Babesia has evolved for many hundreds of thousands of years, and can survive in almost every known animal, including reptiles.
There are at least 100 different species of Babesia, twelve of which are known to infect humans. The most common species to infect humans are Babesia microti and Babesia duncani. All the species of Babesia are related to malaria, and their symptom profiles are similar.
Babesia makes its home inside red blood cells (RBCs), especially within the capillary networks of the blood-rich spleen and liver. Even small concentrations of Babesia can cause very serious symptoms, especially when the parasite is combined with Lyme disease. This is due to the fact that Lyme and Babesia seem to work together — creating an inflammatory cascade in the human body that makes it difficult for the immune system to recognize the invaders and develop antibodies. Most of the symptoms of Babesiosis are due to this increase in inflammation.
Symptoms of Babesia
As with Lyme and other coinfections, symptoms of Babesia range from zero all the way to organ failure, coma, and even death. The severity of symptoms depends largely on the state of the individual’s immune system upon infection, as well as on the number of different coinfections present.
Symptoms of Babesia don’t seem to depend on the concentrations of the parasite found in the blood, as mentioned previously. Small concentrations can cause severe symptoms. This is one reason Babesia can be difficult to diagnose.
Most people infected with Babesia experience flu-like symptoms within the first four to nine weeks after infection, such as:
- Drenching night sweats (a hallmark symptom of Babesia)
For some, the initial flu-like battle will clear the parasite. For others, the symptoms are relapsing, and they can worsen over time. If the infection persists, symptoms can include:
- Enlarged red blood cells
- Air hunger
- Inflamed spleen and liver
- Gastrointestinal (GI) trouble
- Cognitive issues such as anxiety, depression, and brain fog (if Babesia affects the brain).
Many of these symptoms overlap with Lyme and other coinfections. This is primarily because tick-borne diseases tend to cause a cascade of inflammatory chemicals like cytokines, as they seek to disable the immune systems of their hosts; the more pathogens present, the more severe the inflammatory response.
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How Do I Get a Babesia Infection?
Babesia is transmitted by deer ticks, along with Borrelia, or Lyme disease. The Babesia endemic areas in the United States include the Northeast, areas around Minnesota and Wisconsin and the West Coast from Northern California up through Washington.
However, ticks are spreading due to climate change, and the risk of Babesia infection is growing. Human populations have eliminated most large predators (such as wolves and mountain lions), and have decreased populations of smaller predators (such as coyotes, owls, and foxes) that previously kept deer, mice, birds, and other transport vehicles for ticks lower. We humans also continue to expand into previously unsettled wooded areas. Where there is an abundance of deer, mice, and birds, there are ticks. Where there are ticks, there is a risk of infection.
Testing and diagnosis
If you get a tick bite, the very best way to protect yourself is to test your tick right away for pathogens. You can use online services such as testmytick.com for this. It will save you lots of time and money if your tick turns out to be infected — as you will find out immediately which bugs you need to fight.
Most conventional physicians don’t seem to be familiar with any of the Lyme coinfections, including Babesia. Especially if you don’t live in an endemic area, it’s unlikely you will be tested by your primary care doctor. (I do live in an endemic area, and Babesia never crossed my conventional doctor’s mind, even with my relapsing fevers.)
In order to find reliable tests, you will most likely have to work with a Lyme specialist, functional MD, or naturopath, and pay out of pocket for specialty tests through companies like IGenex. The best possible test for Babesia is a combination of a blood smear (which looks for parasites in red blood cells) with a PCR test, which looks for Babesia DNA in whole blood. These tests are not cheap, but they are accurate.
Even though Babesia is classified as a parasite, it does respond to some antibiotics. It also responds to Malaria drugs. Your Lyme-literate doctor will be able to offer you drug options.
Babesia also responds to herbal treatment. Stephen Harrod Buhner details an herbal protocol for Babesia in his books and online, and I have found it to be very effective in my own body. Herbal treatment takes a bit longer than drug treatment, but can be gentler, creating fewer side effects. Also, as plants are constantly evolving, pathogens don’t develop resistance to them in the same way they do to pharmaceuticals.
As with any Lyme infection, treatment is personal. There seems to be no one-size-fits-all approach for any of the Lyme coinfections. What works for one of us will trigger unwelcome symptoms for another. Work with your doctor and your own intuition to create a treatment plan specific for your unique body. Over time, Babesia symptoms should lessen and eventually resolve.
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.