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The Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction is a reaction to endotoxins released by the death of harmful organisms within the body. In holistic medicine, it is sometimes referred to as a healing crisis, as it may coincide with recovery from an infectious disease, or a course of detoxification.
It resembles bacterial sepsis and can occur after initiation of antibacterials, such as penicillin or tetracycline, for the treatment of louse-borne relapsing fever (80-90% of patients) and in tick-borne relapsing fever (30-40%). An association has been found between the release of heat-stable proteins from spirochetes and the reaction. Typically, the death of these bacteria and the associated release of endotoxins or lipoproteins occurs faster than the body can remove the substances. It usually manifests within a few hours of the first dose of antibiotic as fever, chills, rigor, hypotension, headache, tachycardia, hyperventilation, vasodilation with flushing, myalgia (muscle pain), exacerbation of skin lesions and anxiety. The intensity of the reaction indicates the severity of inflammation. Reaction commonly occurs within two hours of drug administration, but is usually self-limiting.
Prophylaxis and treatment with an anti-inflammatory agent may stop progression of the reaction. Oral aspirin every four hours for 1–2 days, or 60 mg of prednisone orally or intravenously has been used as an adjunctive treatment. However, steroids are generally of no benefit. Patients must be closely monitored for the potential complications (collapse and shock) and may require i.v. fluids to maintain adequate blood pressure. If available, meptazinol, an opioid antagonist, should be administered to reduce the severity of the reaction. Anti TNF-a may also be effective.
The Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction is classically associated with penicillin treatment of syphilis. Duration in syphilis is normally only a few hours. The reaction is also seen in other diseases caused by spirochetes, such as borreliosis (Lyme disease and tick-borne relapsing fever) and leptospirosis, and in Q fever. Similar reactions have also been reported to occur in bartonellosis (including cat scratch disease), brucellosis, typhoid fever, and trichinosis.
Both Adolf Jarisch, an Austrian dermatologist, and Karl Herxheimer, a German dermatologist, are credited with the discovery of the Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction. Both Jarisch and Herxheimer observed reactions in patients with syphilis treated with mercury. The reaction was first seen following treatment in early and later stages of syphilis treated with Salvarsan, mercury, or antibiotics. It is seen in 50% of patients with primary syphilis and about 90% of patients with secondary syphilis.
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