Bartonella false positives are common
In chronic Lyme pseudoscience groups, patients are often misled into believing they have multiple fake diagnoses, not just “chronic Lyme”. Quite commonly, patients desperate for an explanation to their symptoms receive false diagnoses of “chronic Bartonella.”
Bartonella is a genus of bacteria, and the most common species transmitted to humans in North America is called Bartonella henselae. As discussed in more detail below, Bartonella henselae causes cat-scratch disease, which clears up on its own in most cases and results in lifelong immunity.
The CDC debunks some common myths about Bartonella:
- To date, no study in the United States has shown that Bartonella can be transmitted to humans by ticks.
- Unfortunately there is a great deal of misinformation regarding multiple tickborne infections (called coinfections) on the internet. The possibility of having several tickborne infections at once or having pathogens such as Bartonella that have not been shown to be tickborne, is extremely unlikely.
Since Lyme bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) is only spread by black legged (Ixodes) ticks and Bartonella is not a known tick-borne infection in the United States, Bartonella is not a coinfection of Lyme disease.
Bartonella is also not a coinfection of Babesia, an infection that is spread by the same tick as Lyme disease in the northeast United States.
As discussed in more detail below, pseudoscience advocates falsely claim that harmless stretch marks are a “bartonella rash” or “bartonella tracks”.
In a 2013 survey by quackery propaganda group LymeDisease.org, 54% of respondents claiming to have chronic Lyme disease—itself an unrecognized diagnosis— also claimed to have a Bartonella coinfection. As detailed in our post on tick-borne infections in the United States, the survey results defy reality.
But what about positive tests?
Confusion may be caused by inappropriate use of testing. Many people produce antibodies to Bartonella bacteria, but this does not mean that Bartonella is causing symptoms.
In addition, CDC scientists have called into question certain PCR (DNA) tests that have not been validated. The scientists criticized one paper by fringe researchers Edward Breitschwerdt, Ricardo Maggi, Bobak Robert Mozayeni, Elizabeth Pultorak, Barbara Hegarty, Julie Bradley, and Maria Correa, as containing “serious flaws in content and underlying message.”
The Breitschwerdt paper inexplicably claimed many subjects tested positive for Bartonella DNA by PCR and yet did not test positive for Bartonella antibodies. Since a Bartonella infection typically provokes an immune response, the scientists questioned the contradictory and implausible results.
Profits over ethics?
Breitschwerdt, Maggi, and Mozayeni are executives in the for-profit company Galaxy Diagnostics, which sells expensive testing for Bartonella and tick-borne diseases. They stand to profit from disease mongering about Bartonella and other infections they peddle tests for.
Breitschwerdt and Maggi are employees of the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University.
Mozayeni, a medical doctor, was elected president of the pseudoscience group ILADS. Mozayeni and Breitschwerdt were listed as speakers at an ILADS conference. In 2010, the Healthcare Protection Agency of UK issued scathing conclusions about guidelines issued by ILADS:
- The ILADS guidelines are not evidence-based and are poorly constructed.
- Application of the ILADS guidelines’ poorly defined case definitions will result in a very high risk of misdiagnosis.
- Use of ILADS guidelines’ vague treatment recommendations, including prolonged use of antibiotics, has potentially serious consequences.
- Patients misdiagnosed with Lyme disease risk losing opportunities for diagnosis and treatment of other conditions. They also risk serious physical, psychological social and financial adverse events.
Mozayeni runs Translational Medicine Group and Bethesda Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, which are located in Bethesda, Maryland. The subjects of the Breitschwerdt paper were patients examined and selected by Mozayeni.
Doctors are very concerned about patients who have been diagnosed with false Bartonella infections because the patients may receive unnecessary treatments and delay treatment for a real conditions. Ultimately, a positive test is not necessarily meaningful. Because of the confusion surrounding testing, the CDC advises:
It is important for all abnormal test results to be interpreted with your health care provider in the context of your medical history.
Beware of shady labs
The CDC has explained that there are no FDA-cleared tests for Bartonella on the market. Sadly, disreputable and expensive labs have popped up that are used to facilitate false diagnoses.
LymeScience recommends against patronizing the following labs: Galaxy Diagnostics, IgeneX, BCA Lab (also called InfectoLab), DNA Connexions, ArminLabs, Medical Diagnostic Laboratories (MDL), and others listed on our Red Flags of Chronic Lyme Quackery page.
Fake Bartonella photos flood the Internet
Cat-scratch disease is caused by infection with bacteria called Bartonella henselae. According to the CDC, typical symptoms include:
- Low-grade fever may be present
- Enlarged, tender lymph nodes that develop 1–3 weeks after exposure
- A papule or pustule at the inoculation site
This is a photo of real papules caused by Cat-scratch disease:
In chronic Lyme groups, dubious photos of rashes are commonly presented as evidence of Bartonella infection. In reality, these photos are typically stretch marks, a common skin condition also called Striae distensae. Stretch marks associated with pregnancy are called striae gravidarum.
According to Medscape:
Approximately 90% of pregnant women, 70% of adolescent females, and 40% of adolescent males (many of whom participate in sports) have stretch marks.
Below is a photo of typical stretch marks:
As shown below, a search for “rash bartonella” on Google Images returns several photos that are likely stretch marks and not skin manifestations of Bartonella. The top hit is from the pseudoscience organization LymeDisease.org.
No reputable science organization features photos like this of Bartonella. One of the images is just a mislabeled version of the Wikimedia stretch marks image.
Dermatologists reassure the public
Upon discovery, stretch marks can seem concerning to parents and teenagers. Fortunately, scientists in the Department of Dermatology at Johns Hopkins University studied the issue in 2018 by reviewing cases of stretch marks of teenage boys, specifically in the lower back.
Regarding the studied stretch marks, the scientists found:
- Stretch marks have nothing to do with bacterial infection, including Bartonella or Lyme disease.
- Stretch marks are associated with rapid growth spurt, tall stature, and family history of stretch marks.
- Stretch marks are not related to chronic medical conditions or anabolic steroid use.
- Further medical testing is unnecessary.
- Unsubstantiated information spread by Lyme-oriented web sites (such as lymedisease.org, lymeactionnetwork.org, and lymeneteurope.org) may cause unnecessary concerns from parents.
The American Academy of Dermatology has more information on why stretch marks appear and how to get rid of them.
What is real Bartonella?
Several Bartonella species are known to infect humans. Bartonella henselae causes cat-scratch disease because the bacteria is transmitted to humans from a scratch of a cat.
As stated above, cat-scratch disease often causes enlarged lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy), typically in the underarm, head/neck, or groin. This is photo of a 5-year old child with lymph node growth in the underarm due to cat-scratch disease:
Lymph node growth occurs in many different conditions, so this symptom alone cannot be used to diagnose cat-scratch disease.
The human body louse (lice) transmits Bartonella quintana to humans, causing Trench fever. The National Organization for Rare Disorders states that Trench fever “is commonly found in homeless, alcoholic, and poverty-stricken populations where poor sanitation and poor hygiene often occurs.”
Cat-Scratch Disease treatments
Most cases of cat-scratch disease go away on their own, so antibiotics are typically not recommended. Instead, guidelines recommend analgesics and careful monitoring. Though there is little data to support specific antibiotic treatment of cat-scratch disease in patients with functioning immune systems, antibiotics (e.g. a 4 day course) are sometimes used in complicated cases.
A very small subset of patients, such as the immunocompromised, may develop worse symptoms and require special treatment. For example, cat-scratch disease and other Bartonella infections can be more serious in HIV/AIDS patients or those receiving immunosuppressant drugs. Bartonella has also been recognized as a cause of endocarditis, a severe manifestation.
According to infectious disease specialist Dr. Katarzyna Mazur-Melewska and colleagues:
One episode of cat-scratch disease confers lifelong immunity to all patients.
Other Bartonella species treatments
For Trench fever and serious complications of Bartonella, the CDC recommends consulting with an infectious disease expert and treating with antibiotics.
Herbs for Bartonella?
Like for Lyme disease, there is no scientific evidence to support herbs and supplements to treat Bartonella.
We encourage consumers to run far away from unscientific practitioners who profit from sales of herbs and supplements.
Given the known characteristics of Bartonella, the claims of chronic tick-borne Bartonella infections are simply not supported by science. A real Bartonella infection bears little resemblance to how it is portrayed in non-science-based forums online.
Despite claims by chronic Lyme activists of numerous chronic tick-borne coinfections, a 2014 scientific review concluded:
The medical literature does not support the diagnosis of chronic, atypical tick-borne coinfections in patients with chronic, nonspecific illnesses.
In other words, the diagnoses of chronic coinfections that chronic Lyme advocates have received are likely misdiagnoses.
- CDC: Bartonella testing FAQs
- CDC: Bartonella diagnosis and treatment: Information for clinicians
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Cat-Scratch Disease
- Dr. Warren Heymann: Striae Due to Bartonella is a Stretch
- Bartonella Treatment Guidelines: Angelakis E, Raoult D. Pathogenicity and treatment of Bartonella infections. Int J Antimicrob Agents. 2014;44(1):16-25. (mirror)
- Rolain JM, et al. Recommendations for treatment of human infections caused by Bartonella species. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2004;48(6):1921-33.
- Lantos PM, Wormser GP. Chronic coinfections in patients diagnosed with chronic lyme disease: a systematic review. Am J Med. 2014;127(11):1105-10. [Discusses dubious diagnoses of Bartonella, Anaplasmosis, and Babesia]
- CDC scientists complain about misinformation on Bartonella
- Telford SR, Wormser GP. Bartonella spp. transmission by ticks not established. Emerging Infect Dis. 2010.
- National Organization of Rare Disorders: Bartonellosis
- Medscape: Cat Scratch Disease (Cat Scratch Fever) Clinical Presentation
- Mazur-Melewska K, et al. Cat-scratch disease: a wide spectrum of clinical pictures. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2015.
- Mazur-Melewska K, et al. The significance of Bartonella henselae bacterias for oncological diagnosis in children. Infect Agents Cancer. 2015;10:30.
- Lins KA, et al. Cutaneous manifestations of bartonellosis. An Bras Dermatol. 2019.
- Massei F, et al. High prevalence of antibodies to Bartonella henselae among Italian children without evidence of cat scratch disease. Clin Infect Dis. 2004;38(1):145-8.
- Nelson CA, et al. Cat-Scratch Disease in the United States, 2005-2013. Emerging Infect Dis. 2016.
- Nelson CA, et al. Cat scratch disease: U.S. clinicians’ experience and knowledge. Zoonoses Public Health. 2018.
- Nawrocki CC, et al. Atypical Manifestations of Cat-Scratch Disease, United States, 2005–2014. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2020
- Sander A, et al. Seroprevalence of antibodies to Bartonella henselae in patients with cat scratch disease and in healthy controls: evaluation and comparison of two commercial serological tests. Clin Diagn Lab Immunol. 1998..
- Boozalis E, et al. Demographic characteristics of teenage boys with horizontal striae distensae of the lower back. Pediatr Dermatol. 2018.
- Mada PK, et al. Bartonellosis StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2018.
- Klotz SA, et al. Cat-scratch Disease. Am Fam Physician. 2011.
- Rolain JM, et al. Recommendations for treatment of human infections caused by Bartonella species. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2004.
- University of Guelph Worms and Germs blog: Cat Scratch Disease for Cat Owners
- LymeScience: Bartonella Rash vs Stretch Marks (a shorter version of this article)
- Philly Voice: Please don’t freak out about Cat Scratch Disease
- This Podcast Will Kill You: Bartonella: Keep Calm and Carrión 🔊
Cat-scratch Disease/Bartonella in Children
Kidshealth.org: Cat Scratch Disease
Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia: Cat Scratch Disease in Children
Updated September 29, 2021