“Chronic Lyme Disease”: A controversial diagnosis

Yolanda Foster, former model and reality star on Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, has been publicly battling Lyme disease. She was first diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2012 which she seemed to have under control given her healthy-looking appearance on the show. However, she suffered a relapse last December which made her so ill that she was no longer able to read and write. Antibiotics were unable to cure her therefore she has been receiving stem cell treatment in Germany. She has been sharing her ongoing fight through social media and on the reality show. However, there has been some controversy with her illness being that her condition is chronic.


What is Lyme disease? Lyme disease is an infectious bacterial disease harbored by ticks. It is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi (B. burgdorferi) and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks (aka deer ticks). Symptoms of Lyme disease can vary depending on the length of time from the initial tick bite.

The initial symptoms that usually occur within three to thirty days after a tick bite include a red rash that gradually expands (usually looks like a bullseye), fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. Some people may experience a rash and the other symptoms, however, other people may not have a rash. Some people may get a small bump or redness where the tick bite is which usually goes away in one to two days. This is not a sign of Lyme disease though.

Other symptoms that can occur if the tick bite is not immediately treated which can appear anywhere from days to weeks after the bite include loss of muscle tone on one or both sides of the face (Bell’s palsy), additional rashes on the body, severe headaches and neck stiffness due to inflammation of the spinal cord, pain and swelling in the large joints (such as knees), shooting pains that may interfere with sleep, and heart palpitations and dizziness due to changes in heartbeat. Many of these symptoms can go away on their own, but without treatment, can get worse.

If the disease goes undiagnosed or untreated for months to years after a tick bite, people can develop arthritis accompanied by severe joint pain and swelling. This occurs in about 60 percent of infected people. About 5 percent of people may develop chronic neurological problems which includes numbness, shooting pains, tingling in the hands and feet, or short-term memory.

When Lyme disease is caught early, most people make a full recovery. Treatment includes a two to four week course of antibiotics. However, about 10 to 20 percent of people with Lyme disease who receive antibiotic treatment may have symptoms that are persistent and/or recur afterwards; this referred to as Post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS).

For people who suffer from PTLDS, prolonged antibiotic treatment may not be helpful, or may even be harmful. In fact, many medical experts advise against long-term antibiotic treatment for Lyme disease. Symptoms for PTLDS may include muscle and joint pains, cognitive difficulties, sleep disturbances, or fatigue.

It is unclear what causes PTLDS symptoms or why they stick around after antibiotic treatment, but studies show that they are not caused by an ongoing infection with B. burgdorferi. PTLDS may be caused by an autoimmune response, which means the immune system is still responding to the infection even after being treated for it. When this happens, the body’s tissues become damaged.

PTLDS may also be referred to as “chronic Lyme disease.” Chronic Lyme disease is a controversial diagnosis because there is not much evidence to support it. This diagnosis has history of being used to diagnose different illnesses, even in patients who have never had the B. burgdorferi infection. There is however, evidence to suggest that long-term use of antibiotics to chronic Lyme disease can do more harm than good.

There are also a large number of people who contract Lyme disease who are misdiagnosed during the early stages. This leads to a chronic form of the disease which can be even more difficult to diagnose and treat. Lyme disease can often mimic other conditions, such as multiple sclerosis.

Yolanda Foster is one of the 10 to 20 percent of people who suffers from PTLDS. She has travelled to Germany to receive an experimental stem cell treatment for her symptoms. However, this type of therapy is questionable because there seems to be a number of problems with it. It appears that many overseas clinics do not fully assess a patient’s medical history for stem cell treatment for Lyme disease. Many unnecessary tests are done and stem cell treatment is often provided without an actual diagnosis. Stem cell treatment for Lyme disease is also not used in the United States, and medical practitioners are not allowed to provide treatment for a condition without a diagnosis. There is just too much risk involved in treating an undiagnosed condition. It is unclear how effective stem cell treatment is for Lyme disease, but it is likely that even if it does help at all, it is only temporary.

The key to Lyme disease is prevention. The risk for Lyme disease is highest among people who live in or plan to travel to New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and the upper Midwest.

Here are the best ways to reduce your risk and prevent the disease:

  • Know where to expect ticks. Blacklegged ticks (deer ticks) live in moist and humid environments in wooded and grassy areas.
  • Use DEET repellent and wear protective clothing.
  • Check yourself for ticks daily when living in or travelling to areas where ticks are prevalent.
  • If you have a tick on you, remove it quickly. Removing it within 24 hours significantly reduces your risk for Lyme disease.
  • Know the right way to remove ticks. Use tweezers to slowly pull out the tick. It’s important to remove the entire body because sometimes the tick’s head can latch on to your skin which still harbors the disease.
  • Check your pets for ticks.
  • Be aware of any rashes or fevers you develop during tick season.
  • Make sure your yard is tick-safe by using a chemical control agent or keeping deer away.