Mycoplasma, the Most Common Lyme Coinfection
by Dr. Bill Rawls | Updated 5/11/16
Mycoplasma is the stealthiest of all stealth microbes. It may be a major player in many chronic diseases associated with aging, but remarkably, most people, including most doctors, have limited awareness of it.
If you have Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, autoimmune disease, or possibly any other chronic illness, however…it is a microbe you should know about.
Mycoplasma is the smallest of all bacteria. 4,000 of them can fit inside one red blood cell in your body (only 10-15 of average sized bacteria would fit). It is a parasite—it cannot live without a host. Unlike other bacteria, mycoplasmas do not have a protective cell wall. This interesting strategy of survival allows them to change their shape and fit into areas where other bacteria cannot go. It also allows them to slip inside cells of the host. Not having a cell wall makes mycoplasma completely resistant to many types of antibiotics.
There are over 200 known types of mycoplasma (and probably many yet to be discovered) that can infect both animals and plants. It is highly adaptable and can jump species and adapt to new hosts very readily.
There are at least 23 different varieties of mycoplasma that can infect humans (and counting). A few of them are considered harmless normal flora, but most have the potential to cause disease.
Mycoplasma are spread by biting insects (ticks, mosquitoes, fleas, biting flies), sexual contact, contaminated food, and airborne droplets. Most everyone has been exposed to some form of mycoplasma. Mycoplasma (several species) have been closely linked to many chronic degenerative diseases.
Mycoplasma is a master of manipulating and outmaneuvering the host’s immune system. Half of its genetic makeup is devoted to that exclusive purpose. It has little ability to cause direct harm to the host, but it can use the host’s immune function to its own advantage.
Everything that the bacteria needs for survival (vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates, and amino acids) must be scavenged from the host; it makes nothing itself. To gain access to needed resources, mycoplasma generate inflammation in the body by manipulating the signaling mechanisms of the immune system (called cytokines). Inflammation breaks down tissues and allows the bacteria to gain access to the host’s resources. Mitochondria are prime targets for energy; fatigue is always a factor in mycoplasma infections.
Mycoplasma favor infecting the cells of tissues that line different areas of the body. Common sites of infection include nasal passages, sinuses, lungs, the lining of the intestinal tract, the genital tract, vesicles inside the brain, and the synovial lining of joints. They also commonly infect white blood cells, red blood cells, and brain tissue. Different mycoplasma have a preference for certain tissues, but all mycoplasma species possess the ability to infect any type of tissue and all organ systems.
The most common mycoplasma, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, has preference for lung tissue. Initial infection with M. pneumoniae typically causes pharyngitis (sore throat), cough, fever, headache, malaise, rhinitis (runny nose); all the common symptoms of a basic upper respiratory infection. If the person’s immune system is not full strength, it can progress to bronchitis and even pneumonia (about 20% of pneumonias). The type of pneumonia caused by mycoplasma (often called “walking pneumonia”) is rarely severe enough to result in hospitalization, though it can drag on for weeks or even months.
Clearing of respiratory symptoms, however, may not be the end of the story. After mycoplasma enters the body through a prefered infection site, it also infects white blood cells. Once inside a white blood cell, it can be carried to all parts of the body and infect other tissues and organs.
The lungs are certainly not the only way for mycoplasma to enter the body. Some species of mycoplasma have a preference for causing genital infections. Others can be spread by ticks and several species of mycoplasma are commonly found in the intestines. Initial infection sites are not absolutely species-specific, however. Mycoplasma pneumoniae has been known to cause genital infections and other mycoplasma that typically infect the genitals have been found in the stomach.
No matter where the initial infection occurs, any species of mycoplasma has the potential to spread throughout the body.
- Genital infections are most common with four species of mycoplasma (M. hominis, M. genitalium, Ureaplasma urealyticum, U. parvum), but other species of mycoplasma can be spread sexually and cause genital symptoms. Genital infection with mycoplasma can cause UTI symptoms (burning and pain with urination) in both male and female. Typically the urine culture is negative.
- Genital mycoplasma has been associated with prostatitis, kidney infection, pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical infection, and infertility (male and female). In pregnancy, mycoplasma has been associated with premature rupture of membranes, miscarriage, growth retardation, and postpartum infection. The genital area is an entry point for mycoplasma and can lead to systemic infection.
- M. pneumoniae is the most common mycoplasma to be associated with respiratory infections, but other species of mycoplasma also are found. Mycoplasma has been associated with childhood asthma. The feeling of needing to “catch breath” in fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, and chronic fatigue may be related to mycoplasma.
- Mycoplasma commonly infects the synovial lining of joints (lining protecting the joint). 90% of people with rheumatoid arthritis test positive for mycoplasma in the synovial fluid. The most common mycoplasma species associated with rheumatoid arthritis is M. fermentans, but M. pneumoniae and other species have also been found. Mycoplasma or other stealth microbes may be an underlying factor in most forms of arthritis.
- Mycoplasma scavenge fats from the myelin sheath covering nerve tissue. Not surprisingly, mycoplasma (and other stealth microbes including chlamydia and borrelia) have been linked to multiple sclerosis. Mycoplasma has been closely linked to other neurodegenerative diseases including ALS (M. fermentans is most common) and Parkinson’s disease.
- Mycoplasma has been found in the bone marrow of children with leukemia.
- Mycoplasma has been found in cancer tissue, including cervical and ovarian cancer.
- Finding mycoplasma in cervical cancer suggests that it may be a cofactor in cervical cancer, along with human papillomavirus (HPV). (Mycoplasma has been demonstrated to facilitate the entry of certain viruses into cells.)
- Mycoplasma as a top candidate for explaining autoimmunity; it stimulates host self-damage and that it can live inside cells while simultaneously turning off the ability of the immune system to recognize the cell as abnormal. Mycoplasma has been linked to many autoimmune diseases; which disease occurs is dependent on the genetic profile of the person and other stealth microbes that may be involved.