Is There A PCR Test For Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease can lead to a host of different health issues, and many people may contract the bacterial infection without even knowing it. The first initial symptoms of Lyme disease are non-specific, so people may often brush them off as a minor flu or other illness. But for people who have been out in wooded areas, ignoring the symptoms of Lyme could be a big mistake – untreated Lyme disease wreaks havoc on the body and can cause permanent damage to joints, nerves, and organs.

Because of this, getting tested for a Lyme disease infection is crucial if you suspect that you may have been bitten by an infected tick. This is especially true if you believe that the tick has been attached to you for a long period of time. Typically, it takes around 36–48 hours for the transmission of the borrelia bacteria to occur, so if you find a tick attached to you and it has been several days since you were in a potentially affected area, contact your doctor to get tested.

One Lyme disease test that may be available to you is a PCR test. But what is Lyme disease PCR testing, and what does a Lyme PCR test tell you?

Lyme disease PCR testing

A polymerase chain reaction test, also known as a PCR test, checks blood for evidence of a pathogen’s DNA. In some cases, a PCR test will be performed using a sample of synovial fluid, which is found in the joints. This test has become very common in the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of people have had to undergo PCR testing for coronavirus.

A Lyme disease PCR test is designed to look for the borrelia bacteria’s DNA to identify whether or not it has made its way into the body through a bite from an infected tick. When DNA material is found, it can be determined that a Lyme infection is present.

processing lab test results

Image by CDC on Unsplash: The PCR test looks for DNA that confirms a case of Lyme disease is present.

What does a Lyme PCR test tell you?

There are various tests designed to help identify if someone has been infected with Lyme disease. Many of the most-used tests rely heavily on the search for the body’s reaction to Lyme bacteria. When the borrelia bacteria makes its way into the body, an immune response is initiated. This leads to immune cells creating certain antibodies to fight off the antigen.

These tests that look for antibodies can tell if a person has come into contact with Lyme disease; however, they are not always the best option for detecting a new infection, because it takes up to six weeks for the body to make Lyme disease antibodies.

A PCR test, on the other hand, does not look for antibodies. It singles out the bacteria’s genetic material and is best used to help identify an active infection of Lyme disease in a person who continues to have symptoms, even following treatment with antibiotics. Typically, PCR testing is a reserved type of investigation because it costs more and requires certain technical skill that isn’t always available.

How accurate is PCR testing for Lyme disease?

A Lyme PCR test is highly unlikely to result in a false negative. That being said, there are some situations in which a person will have a Lyme disease infection and receive a false negative following a PCR test. For example, the Lyme disease DNA may not have made its way throughout the bloodstream, and so its genetic material may be sparse within the body. When that occurs, a blood sample can be taken that does not have Lyme disease bacteria present, which in turn will give a negative result in someone who still has an infection.

How long does a Lyme PCR test take?

While the test itself will take only a few minutes, getting results isn’t as speedy. It can take as long as two weeks to hear back from the lab regarding your results, depending on how quickly they are able to test the sample given.

tick on piece of fabric

Image by Erik Karits on Unsplash: Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness.

Is there a better Lyme disease test available?

Various other tests are used to help diagnose Lyme disease. In fact, the PCR test isn’t the first choice when it comes to diagnosing the disease. Some other tests include:

  1. ELISA

  2. Western Blot

  3. Antigen testing

  4. Culture

The two most commonly used tests are the ELISA and the Western blot; however, both have their own upsides and downsides. No test for Lyme disease is 100% accurate, which is why it’s important to start the testing process as early as possible to allow for timely retesting if necessary.

Featured image by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash

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