Lyme disease is one of the most commonly diagnosed tick-borne infections in the world. It is estimated that up to 3,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with lyme disease every year, with some cases contracted abroad. Public Health England confirms 1000 cases per year are confirmed on blood tests in England and Wales. If it is not identified and treated quickly, it can potentially cause serious, long term complications after infection.
What causes Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria called Borrelia bugdorferi. These bacteria are spread by ticks, which are tiny creatures that are normally found in woodland and heath areas. Ticks bite animals or humans and feed on their blood. When a tick feeds from an animal which carries Borrelia bugdorferi, they pick up the bacteria and become carriers.
If the tick bites then a human, the person can then develop Lyme disease. Ticks that carry Lyme disease have been found throughout the UK and in some areas abroad such as Europe and North America.
When lyme disease is spotted quickly and treated with antibiotics, the person normally recovers fully. However, if it is left untreated, it can cause long term complications.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
Within a few weeks after a person is infected by lyme disease, they may develop erythema migrans (a red ‘bullring’ rash) which is normally around 6 inches in diameter. This rash looks like the bullring on a dartboard: circular in shape with a clear ring of skin around its centre. Some people develop more than one rash on their body; however, one in three never develop the rash.
Some people may also develop flu-like symptoms one to two weeks after being infected by Lyme disease, such as tiredness, headache, pain in the muscle or joints, fever, chills, and neck stiffness.
If you suspect a ‘bullring’ rash or show flu-like symptoms after spending time in woodland or heath areas, see a doctor and discuss with them the possibility of Lyme disease.
What happens if Lyme disease is left untreated?
When Lyme disease is left untreated, it can start to cause more serious complications. People can show symptoms such as:
- Bell’s palsy (paralysis of some facial muscles)
- Meningitis (infection of the lining that protects the brain and spinal cord)
- Compressed nerves causing pain, tingling, loss of sensation, and muscle weakness
- Heart problems such as myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the protective sac that surrounds the heart), causing abnormalities in the heart beat
- Arthritis which normally affects large joints such as the knee
These complications may resolve slowly once they are treated, although for some people these will persist in the long term.
Some people who have been infected with Lyme disease go on to develop chronic symptoms which is very similar to the symptoms found in fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. This is known as post-infectious Lyme disease. This condition is extremely difficult to diagnose as the symptoms normally show months after an infected tick bite and are very similar to other conditions.
How is Lyme disease treated?
If a doctor thinks that you may have been infected with Lyme disease, they will normally give you a course of antibiotics. Most people require a course of two to three weeks. It is important to finish the course that you are prescribed even if you start to feel better to ensure that all the bacteria are killed and do not develop resistance to antibiotics. If you develop more serious symptoms such as pain or swelling in your joints or chest pains, you may need to have injections of these antibiotics rather than tablets or liquid.
If you have post-infectious Lyme disease or symptoms that have lasted a long time, you may be referred to a specialist in infectious diseases. Currently, there is little agreement on how to best treat post-infectious Lyme disease.
What can I do to prevent Lyme disease?
You can reduce the risks of getting infected by Lyme disease by being aware of the risk of infection when you’re in an area that is known to have a high population of ticks. For instance, when you are hiking in woodland or heath areas with lots of overgrowth, you can:
- Keep to footpaths
- Avoid long grass
- Wear appropriate clothing, such as long sleeves and long trousers tucked into socks
- Using insect repellent
- Checking that ticks have not been brought into your home by examining your own and your children’s clothes and skin
- Checking that ticks have not been brought into your home by examining your pet
If you see a tick on your skin, remove the tick by gently pulling it out with a tweezer. Wash your skin and apply antiseptics afterwards and make an appointment with a doctor if you start to notice any symptoms mentioned earlier.