Lyme (and Other Rickettsial Bacteria and Diseases)

by CEW

(Originally published at

Following a warm winter in the U.S. ticks and lyme disease may be on the rise. It's in fact the fastest-growing infectious disease in the U.S. Here's a "lowdown" on Lyme, plus general information on rickettsial diseases.

Some years ago, a technical writing professor asked our class to write an incident report on an accident that had occurred in our hypothetical Chinese restaurant. Our favorite customers, dear old "Mr. and Mrs. Ricketty," both crippled by arthritis, had somehow missed our "please wait to be seated" sign and had tried to seat themselves when a waiter backing out of the kitchen loaded with trays had stumbled into poor Mrs. Ricketty's walker, leaving the lady on the floor and also dragging Mr. Ricketty down.

Of course we had a great time writing our reports, and thought them hysterically funny. (My team recommended that the "please wait to be seated" sign be translated into English; I read the report to the class, and being tired was slap-happy and giggled through the whole; after class I had a discussion with another team member who told me how his grandma or aunt had reminded him that, whatever he had, to "keep it in his pants".) There's nothing funny about ricketts though. Anne Frank and her sister died of typhus, spread no doubt by poor sanitary conditions in the camps where they were.

Deadly Typhus, Dr. Ricketts

Typhus is caused by a type of rickettsial bacteria. Rickettsial bacteria are named for Dr. Howard Rickets, who himself died of the disease while studying it in Mexico.

"Garden" Varieties?

Not all varieties of "ricketts" are so deadly. In World War Two, two Polish doctors reportedly injected people in one town with a not-so-dangerous "garden variety," Porteus OX19. When positive test after positive test for typhus in the town was reported, the Germans decided not to enter the town.

Lyme: High Incidence This Summer?

This summer, after a warm U.S. winter, a higher-than-usual tick population is predicted. Lyme disease, caused by one kind of rickettsial bacteria that apparently grows on a particular receptor that's in ticks' stomachs may thus be on the rise.

Lyme disease is named for the town of Lyme, Connecticut, where mothers noticed arthritis symptoms in their children who had one commonality: having been bitten by a tick, according to Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague (1994).

Lyme, Spotted Fever, Typhus

The rickettsial bacterium that causes Lyme disease and the one that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever in the Western United States are actually very similar to the rickettsial bacterium involved in typhus. Rocky Mountain spotted fever is so close to typhus in fact that, according to some, the main difference is that Rocky Mountain spotted fever is carried by ticks whereas typhus is carried by lice or fleas. Across the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Spotted Fever is also caused by ticks.

Chills, Congestion, Rash, Gangrene

Lyme, spotted fever, and typhus are characterized by chills, congestion, and a spotted rash. They differ from a third rickettsial disease, syphilis, which is not arthropod-borne. The latter is characterized by a neck rash while Lyme in particular attacks the feet and legs, especially in hikers (who are of course on their legs a lot). Both Lyme and typhus rashes can lead to gangrene of the extremities.

Gangrene of the extremities may also be caused by syphilis but incidences seem to be few. Typhus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever can both cause death in days, although, according to Dr. Ricketts' research, spotted fever and typhus are not the same. However the bacteria that cause both are almost identical, Garrett (1994) says.


According to Garrett, yaws, a kind of rickettsial disease which affects the skin and also wool bedding and is believed to be closely related to syphilis, has a long history in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. As for the history of typhus, Garrett says that it was at first flea-borne but got into lice, and when it did so human infections became more common. By the eleventh century, when armies were criss-crossing Asia and Europe, so was typhus, Garrett believes.

Evidence of crippling (from syphilis or Lyme) can be found in fourteenth century bones from Europe, according to Garrett. Syphilis was documented in Europe in Italy during the time of Columbus, but some cite earlier apparent descriptions of the disease in Europe in the late Middle Ages.

Typhus and Hygiene

Typhus, as noted, is linked to poor hygiene and sanitation. Seventeenth century painters portrayed subjects combing out head lice. An early excavator of the Great Dismal swamp described finding his way through the swamp by picking the eyelids off of one of the lice infesting his shirt, removing the louse's eyelids, and then watching to see which way the louse faced which was of course away from the forest-shrouded sun. The excavator headed the opposite direction to find sunlight. One slave in the Americas described straining the plantation milk in his "louse-infested" shirt because he had nothing else to strain it with.

Typhus was rampant in cities in Europe and the U.S., particularly in poor neighborhoods. However, late in the nineteenth century, as washing soda consumption increased, particularly among the masses, typhus began to decline, in part to awareness of the connection between it and sanitation. Washing machines came into vogue also around this time.

Lyme and Forest Destruction

According to both Garrett and Arno Karlen, who researched Lyme in his book, Man and Microbes (1996), clear cutting of forests particularly in the U.S., together with the extermination of predators such as the wolf, paved the way for Lyme to take over the brush that grew where forests had been. Karlen says that Lyme however is not particularly dependent on the deer population, that there has to be another vector. Karlen suggests rodents, though Pennsylvania's rabbit population may be another possible source. (Still another interesting fact about Pennsylvania's environment is the rapidly increasing rainfall according to NOAA data on the stafe for the last century.) Between 2001 and 2005, one or more cases of Lyme disease were reported for every thousand persons in Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut.


Pre-second World War treatments for syphilis included mercury, potassium iodide, and an arsenic compound. Colloidal silver has been touted as effective at treating Lyme but its effectiveness has not been documented. A popular treatment for rickettsial diseases among Native Americans at least was the somewhat toxic pokeweed root.

Prevention Best

Today, for dogs at least, the best solution may be vaccination. For campers, cats, and children though it's repellant. The better flea controls for cats include a repellant.

A drop of pennyroyal essential oil in shampoo can kill ticks and head lice too in children. It's also a great addition to the wash (just a drop is needed, along with the usual soap!). Do not ingest it though, as pennyroyal (a kind of mint) tends to destroy the intestinal flora and fauna. Essential oils are not designed for ingestion in any case.

If you get a tick bite, wash it well (sodium laureth sulfate is a good soap and may also help those who have a rash associated with lyme).

Early Treatment

Where prevention fails, early treatment is essential since rickettsial diseases become less treatable as they progress. Lyme disease occasionally disappears after a while, but may come back, and so if you've ever had it, some caution should be observed. Initially injected into the skin at the tick bite source (which often but not always leads to a characteristic bullseye rash, looking something like a bullseye in an inflammed target), it quickly infects the bloodstream.

Survival in Joints and Blood?

Arno Karlen cites research suggesting that Lyme may possibly "hide itself" long-term "in the joints" when it otherwise seems to be in remission. The joints like the skin contain lots of collagen, a stretchy tissue, and I wonder if it's the collagen that lyme flourishes in. Both Lyme and syphilis can warp and bend joints. The reason perhaps is hypoxia, induced by gout. Gout is a name for the buildup of uric acid in the joints, the result of waste -- from injuries, too much weight-bearing; waste is normally cleansed readily by the kidneys, but in some cases cleansing fails. Why does it fail in lyme and syphilis? Again the answer may be hypoxia as rickettsial bacteria live in environments without oxygen (and may perhaps work to create such an environment; see notes on magnesium and biofilms below; these are my ideas).

Lyme also seems to spread from one skin inflammation to the other, and the clear discharge from the sores and rash may infect other skin, if not dried out by heat or medicine. There seems to be an interaction between the skin and blood, and sometimes also between the skin and the joints perhaps, that spreads the rash. In yaws, which does not infect the blood, the skin rash quickly disappears and the disease ends its course, unlike in syphilis and lyme, where the rash is recurrent. Syphilis, like Lyme, infects the bloodstream.

Lyme and the Body's Metals

Traditional bacteria exploit the body's mineral transport systems, particularly the iron transport system. However lyme seems to not require iron. Instead it uptakes metal apparently using a protein involved in manganese transport, in both animals and in ticks. Without this protein it does not infect, according to research by Ouyang, He, Oman, Yang, Norgard (2008; but I don't dig these studies that use mice). Because the body generally stops bacterial infection by hiding iron but does not do so apparently with manganese, this may be one reason why lyme is able to evade the immune system so long. Chronic lyme sufferers are often manganese deficient. Manganese is an important metal in iron-binding and may be important in protecting the body from disease. Sources of manganese in the diet include cloves, chia seeds, and spinach.

Magnesium, deficient in most Americans and especially deficient in North American soil, is also especially deficient in lyme sufferers. This mineral is needed by lyme bacteria's biofilms. Magnesium also seems to be needed by the body's fauna and flora -- which may play a role in the circulatory system, and particularly in wound debridement --, and of course magnesium is needed for vitamin D absorption. So should you replace the magnesium or is that simply feeding the bacteria? One solution might be to soak in magnesium sulfate (epsom salts) or another source of magnesium ("Dead Sea Salts" may have magnesium chloride along with calcium chloride and other minerals -- thus it's a more balanced set of minerals than in epsom salts alone) and afterwards to use probiotics on the afflicted skin (yeast, honey; I personally have had better luck with yeast). This way perhaps you let the probiotics soak up their share of magnesium before lyme gets it all (I am unsure how much magnesium is used by the body's fauna and flora, but this technique has worked very well for me). The body's own fauna and flora, like yeast, can live in environments with oxygen as well as in low-oxygen environments; this distinguishes them from lyme. Thus an environment rich in oxygen is o.k. for the good fauna and flora but keeps out lyme.

Other Soothing Soaks

Besides epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) and other salt (with magnesium chloride) soaks, soaks for Lyme disease include: hot water with orange oil or orange rind, thyme, perhaps lavender (both thyme and lavender are used in "herbes de Provence" of course; I tried adding lavender, which is reputed to help the circulatory system, which lyme can affect, and it seemed excellent) and witch hazel, plus perhaps some French healing clay (the latter is very soothing; use either red or green). In my battles with arthritis and inflamed joints in my toes and feet, arthritis in my fingers, and rot under my toes (and in one case foot arch), I've combined this soak with epsom salts and have added coffee or decaf (I prefer decaf which seems less irritating; coffee soaks work but might aggravate gout; however according to an online article about coffee and gout, drinking coffee at least may reduce gout in men aged forty and up; I myself can't however vouch for coffee enemas, which I have not tried -- and I wonder how coffee taken orally can reach a gangrenous joint? the decaf helps my skin and the soaks do help my gout but I do worry that decaf too can help build up uric acid; I'm also trying chicory as a coffee substitute). I add peroxide to the hot soak, to cool it to 'warm' and add oxygen too (this is excellent in a case of gangrene; cool peroxide is irritating). According to Bader Salem (2010, "The Health Benefits of Thyme [Zaatar in Arabic]"), thyme oil has anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. It contains thymol, which together with menthol (found in mint oil) is used as an alternative treatment for gout (peppermint oil mixed with cinnamon oil helps my gout, which I have in a foot joint; oregano oil is too expensive for me). Birch is something I have not tried that some also claim helps gout. A soak in the warm smoke of a fire may also be helpful, especially for the joints. So may fresh air. Beeswax, shea butter, or a cortizone or silica cream may help skin that has been over-soaked; silica is also critical in healing from gangrene. Some long term sufferers take "teasel root extract" orally. I did not have much with taking it orally, but had some luck when I put it on a sore. (I have not yet applied it to my joints.) The teasel root extract is less drying than many topical medicines. Another topical medicine for sores that unfortunately is poisonous in large doses is chlorhexidine gluconate.

Whether or not colloidal silver treats Lyme disease in the blood, it is effective on skin rashs, perhaps since the rashes are something like a burn in that patches of skin are destroyed. However colloidal silver like teasel root extract may be a bit pricey if the rash is extensive. Medications with orange oil and ginger might also be helpful. Taking melatonin orally may help healing too, in places in the Northeast where the lights shine all night. For sufferers of Lyme, it's worth a try.

Do check out Amayo's discussion of seeking treatment for RMSF or lyme -- note that the doctor tried to convince Amayo that a week of treatment was enough (IMO that doctor is nuts; never stop treatment without a negative test and complete recovery; this results in antibiotic resistance; of course after six weeks or more of continuous antibiotics, which can be strong for the system, or after antibiotic failure, as happened both times I used them, you may have to switch treatment.) I've had lyme since 2001 -- traditional antibiotics stopped working during the first few months of treatment, and always fail within a day if I try them to help me with lyme problems associated with injuries. So be careful.