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A tick for Lyme disease

May 2016

One of my daughter’s friends has had to give up work because she is suffering from Lyme disease. I have heard of this before but not really given it much consideration. However, this unfortunate news coincided with a report I saw from the NHS saying the number of cases of Lyme disease has quadrupled in the last 12 years or so, plus news from the vets charity PDSA suggesting there has been a big increase in pets suffering from the disease as well as humans.

So we at Laterlife decided it was time to find out more about Lyme disease.

Evidently it is a bacterial infection that is spread to humans by infected ticks, tiny creatures that can be found in woodland and heath areas in the UK. Only a small proportion of ticks carry the bacteria, but because they feed on the blood of birds and mammals including humans if they can, they can spread Lyme disease; and the numbers appear to be growing. According to the NHS, there could be between 2,000 and 3,000 new cases of Lyme disease in England and Wales every year, although around a fifth of these occur when people are overseas.

There are some areas that are recognized as having particularly high numbers of ticks, including Exmoor; the New Forest and other rural areas of Hampshire; the South Downs; Thetford Forest in Norfolk; the Lake District; the North York Moors and the Scottish Highlands.

The key as with so many health problems is early detection and treatment, and the early stages really should be quite clear to spot. The disease can start with a distinctive circular red or pink rash around the spot where the tick has bitten you. This usually occurs within 30 days of the bite and is very distinctive. However, one in three people with the disease won’t develop this rash, and the other symptoms are harder to detect. They can include flu like symptoms, feeling tired and with muscle or joint pain, a high temperature or even chills.

The big problems occur when the disease is undetected or left untreated…serious symptoms may not develop for weeks or even months. In some cases the symptoms come out years later; and these can include pain and swelling in the joints, problems affecting the nervous system and even heart problems such as inflammation of the heart muscle.

Another problem is that even if you suspect you have been bitten and may have contracted the disease, and the doctor organises a blood test to confirm the diagnosis, in the early stages of infection the blood tests can come back negative. Or occasionally a blood test can come back positive even when the person doesn’t have the infection (this is why often two blood tests are suggested to ensure a correct diagnosis).

All in all, this does appear to be a tricky disease. 

The advice at the moment is that if you believe you have been bitten by a tick and develop any of the symptoms…certainly a rash…then let your doctor know. If there is a spreading rash some days after you know you have had a tick bite, then doctors are generally advised to treat this with antibiotics even before the results of a blood test.

Most tick bites happen in the summer months in the UK because these are the times of year when most people take part in outdoor activities. It is worth knowing that ticks prefer moist areas with dense vegetation or long grass. Ticks don’t jump or fly, but wait until you brush past them to climb on and attach themselves to your skin.

If you have been out walking in woodland or areas where ticks are likely to be present, it is a good idea to carry out a tick check when you get back home just to check you haven’t picked one up…they like warm, moist places such as the groin area, waist, arm pits, behind the knees and along hair lines, so check out these areas for an unexpected freckle or speck of dirt. Anyone with pets knows that they  – and their bedding – also need to be checked too.

Walking on designated paths rather than brushing through vegetation can also help to prevent picking up any ticks. But while it is a good idea to be aware of ticks and Lyme disease, there is no need to get paranoid about going out and enjoying the summer. Thousands of British people enjoy the great outdoors every summer without getting bitten by an infected tick.

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