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Everything you need to know about Lyme disease

Are you spending more time outside this summer? We explain everything you need to know about Lyme disease, from symptoms to top tips for avoiding tick bites.

There are around 1,500 laboratory-confirmed cases of Lyme disease in England and Wales each year. But as many as 3,000 to 4,000 estimated new cases will be treated by doctors without testing [1].

Once thought to be confined to remote areas, such as the Scottish Highlands, ticks are becoming increasingly common in other areas of the UK. And, with more people taking a staycation this year, it is arguably now even more important to know how to look for the signs of Lyme disease.

WHAT IS LYME DISEASE?

The bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi causes Lyme disease. An infected tick can transmit this bacterium to humans with a single bite.

Ticks are around the size of a pinhead. They live in grassy woodland areas and feed on the blood of mammals, including humans and birds. Infected ticks that cause Lyme disease live throughout the UK, Europe, and North America.

Lyme disease is more than just an insect bite. This bacterial infection can cause health conditions like meningitis or heart failure if left untreated.

In recent years, England has become one of the worst places in Europe for Lyme disease. European researchers have branded the southeast coast as a hotspot for the illness [2]. Climate change is among the reasons behind the growing tick population because warmer temperatures create more suitable habitats for them to thrive [3].

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF LYME DISEASE?

If you have a tick bite and have not removed it within a couple of days, you could be at risk of developing Lyme disease. An early sign of infection is an expanding, circular rash that looks like a bull's eye. But not everyone who is infected experiences a rash.

In the early stages of the infection, some people have flu-like symptoms such as:

  • A high temperature
  • Headaches
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Extreme fatigue

The bacteria multiply and can spread all around the body if left untreated, affecting many areas such as your joints, heart and even the nervous system. Infection of brain tissue can result in memory and concentration problems and may also affect sight and hearing.

Lyme disease is best to treat in its early stages. If you are experiencing symptoms, we recommend seeing your GP as soon as possible. They will prescribe a course of antibiotics to fight the infection if you are diagnosed with Lyme disease.

HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE LYME DISEASE?

Lyme disease is diagnosed clinically using and interpreting all test results carefully. There is no conclusive test for Lyme disease, so it cannot be diagnosed through a blood test alone.

Medichecks Lyme disease (ELISA) blood test is the first step to help confirm whether you are infected with Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. However, if you have glandular fever, rheumatoid arthritis or another autoimmune condition, a test like this could produce a false-positive result. A positive ELISA result would need to be discussed with your doctor, who may arrange an immunoblot confirmation test.

A Lyme disease test can be negative if taken too soon after the infection date. If you are free of symptoms, wait for at least six weeks after the date you suspect you were bitten or were in an environment where you could have been infected. If you are experiencing symptoms, we recommend testing as soon as possible.

TOP TIPS FOR AVOIDING TICK BITES:

  • After spending time in woodland/grassland areas, check yourself all over for any tick bites.
  • If you’re outdoors, cover your skin and tuck your trousers into your socks.
  • Use an insect repellent that contains DEET.
  • Wear light-coloured clothes to make spotting a tick as easy as possible.
  • Wherever possible, stick to paths rather than venturing through long grassy areas.

Be aware that ticks often have a natural anaesthetic in their saliva, meaning many people do not notice when they have been bitten. If you do notice that you have been bitten by a tick, correct removal of the tick reduces the risk of transmission.

How to remove a tick

If using tweezers, pull the tick upwards without twisting and grab it as close to the skin as possible to ensure you remove the head and mouth. Once the tick is removed, keep an eye on the area and watch out for any Lyme disease symptoms.

We are certainly not encouraging anyone to hide away from the sunny weather or steer clear from any grassland areas as most tick bites do not transmit the disease. But we believe it is important for everyone to be informed and aware of the Lyme disease signs and symptoms to keep safe this summer.

Related tests with Medichecks

  • Lyme Disease Blood Test - Lyme disease is a debilitating, infectious disease transmitted by tick bites. This test is the first step to help confirm whether you are infected with Lyme disease.

 


REFERENCES

1.GOV.UK. (2019). Lyme disease: resources and guidance. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/lyme-disease-guidance-data-and-analysis [Accessed 9 Jul. 2019].

2.Estrada-Peña, A., Cutler, S., Potkonjak, A., Vassier-Tussaut, M., Van Bortel, W., Zeller, H., Fernández-Ruiz, N. and Mihalca, A. (2018). An updated meta-analysis of the distribution and prevalence of Borrelia burgdorferi s.l. in ticks in Europe. International Journal of Health Geographics, 17(1).

3.Dumic, I. and Severnini, E. (2018). “Ticking Bomb”: The Impact of Climate Change on the Incidence of Lyme Disease. Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology, 2018, pp.1-10.