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What is Lyme disease and should I be worried?

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 over 1,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of Lyme disease in England and Wales each year. But as many as 2,000 to 3,000 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 even more important to know how to look for the signs of Lyme disease. 

WHAT IS LYME DISEASE? 

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. 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. If left untreated, this bacterial infection can cause health conditions like meningitis or heart failure. 

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 bullseye. 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 

HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE LYME DISEASE? 

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. 

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. 

HOW IS LYME DISEASE TREATED? 

If Lyme disease is left untreated, the bacteria multiply and can spread all around the body, affecting many areas such as your joints, heart, and even the nervous system. If the brain tissue becomes infected, it can result in memory and concentration problems, and may also affect sight and hearing. 

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

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.


REFERENCES 

  1. GOV.UK. 2022. Lyme disease epidemiology and surveillance. [online] Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/lyme-borreliosis-epidemiology/lyme-borreliosis-epidemiology-and-surveillance> [Accessed 13 June 2022].
  2. GOV.UK. 2022. Lyme disease epidemiology and surveillance. [online] Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/lyme-borreliosis-epidemiology> [Accessed 13 June 2022].
  3. Li, S., Gilbert, L., Vanwambeke, S., Yu, J., Purse, B. and Harrison, P., 2019. Lyme Disease Risks in Europe under Multiple Uncertain Drivers of Change. Environmental Health Perspectives, 127(6), p.067010.