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Lyme Disease and Cancer: What’s the Connection?

hiking in the woods watching for ticks
Bacterial infections, similar to Lyme disease, can be a risk factor for developing cancer later in life. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have.

With tick season well underway, you may be wondering what risks Lyme disease brings with it. You may even be wondering, as many have, whether there’s a connection between Lyme disease and cancer. While all evidence suggests Lyme disease won’t give you cancer, you should still be on the lookout for that telltale bull’s-eye rash that signals an infection.

What Is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is an infection caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. It’s carried by ticks and transmitted to humans when an infected tick bites you. Common symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and muscle and joint aches. You may also see a characteristic ring-shaped skin rash. Lyme disease isn’t a sexually transmitted disease and you can’t get it from contact with another person.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported each year, and the vast majority of cases come from 14 states, including Virginia. However, the disease reaches every state in the U.S. Plus, with changing climate conditions, ticks can thrive in many more geographical locations.

What’s the Connection Between Lyme Disease and Cancer?

First things first: Lyme disease doesn’t cause cancer, and it is not contagious. There are some bacterial and viral infections, similar to Lyme disease, that may increase your risk for lymphoma, though there’s no evidence to suggest that Lyme disease can give you lymphoma.

Some evidence suggests that a Borrelia infection is associated with some types of lymphoma. A review published in the Open Journal of Medical Microbiology found that the Borrelia bacterium can be found in the skin of patients with primary cutaneous B-cell lymphoma, which would indicate some connection, though more information is needed to be conclusive. The theory is that Lyme disease causes systemic inflammation in the body. When this inflammation isn’t tamped down, it depresses the immune system. A compromised immune system is typically the perfect setting for DNA mutations to occur and cancer cells to brew.

However, according to the American Cancer Society, there have only been a small number of cases reported that link Lyme disease and cancer. Most people with Lyme disease do not develop lymphoma, and many people who have lymphoma have never had Lyme disease.

Are you concerned about your risk factors?

Talk to your primary care doctor about which cancer screenings are appropriate for you.

Preventing and Treating Lyme Disease

If you’re spending more time outside in the warmer weather, take steps to protect yourself from tick bites. When you are in grassy and wooded areas, wear long sleeves and pants. Pull your socks up over your pants to protect your ankles, and use bug spray.

Since your risk of infection increases the longer a tick is attached to you, check your body and clothing for ticks once you return home. If you find a little guy on your body, be sure to remove the whole tick and wash the area with soap and water.

While Lyme disease may be a risk factor for cancer, there’s no conclusive research to back a connection, so don’t let that stop you from enjoying the great outdoors this summer.

Tags: cancer

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