Lyme disease is on the rise: here's what you need to know

General Health

Everything you need to know in order to keep you and your family safe this summer

11/07/2019


Emily Condon
BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences

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Each year it is estimated that there are around 2,000 to 3,000 new cases of Lyme disease in England and Wales [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. But over recent years England has become one of the worst places in Europe for lyme disease, according to European researchers who have branded the south-east coast as a hotspot for the illness [2]. Climate change is thought to be behind the growing tick population, because warmer temperatures are creating more suitable habitats for them to thrive [3]. Read on to learn everything you need to know about Lyme disease.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi which is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected ticks. Ticks are around the size of a pinhead and are found in grassy, woodland areas. They feed on the blood of mammals (including humans) and birds. Infected ticks that are responsible for causing Lyme disease are found throughout the UK and in other areas of Europe and North America. Lyme disease is more than just an insect bite, it’s a bacterial infection that has the potential to cause serious health conditions such as meningitis or heart failure if left untreated. 

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?

If you have been bitten by a tick and haven't removed it within a couple of days, you could be at risk of developing Lyme disease. A common 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

If left untreated the bacteria multiply and spread all around the body 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 treated in its early stages. If you are experiencing symptoms then we recommend testing as soon as possible. After a diagnosis of Lyme disease, your GP will prescribe a course of antibiotics to fight the infection.  

How do I know if I have Lyme disease?

As there is no conclusive test for lyme disease, lyme disease cannot be diagnosed through a blood test alone. It is important that a diagnosis is made clinically using and interpreting all test results carefully with reference to clinical presentation. Medichecks Lyme disease (ELISA) blood test is the first step to help confirm whether you are infected with Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria.  

However, this test can produce false positive results in people with glandular fever, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions. A positive ELISA result would normally need to be followed with 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 please wait for at least 6 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 then 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 
  • Whilst 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, prompt, correct removal of the tick reduces the risk of transmission. 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 to steer clear from any grassland areas as the majority of tick bites do not transmit the disease. But we believe it is important that everyone is informed and aware of the Lyme disease signs and symptoms in order to keep safe this summer.


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.


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