What do George W Bush, Ben Stiller and Kelly Osbourne have in common? They have all been affected by Lyme disease – a potentially devastating bacterial infection that is increasingly common, yet which is often missed. The trouble is that symptoms are vague and varied. You catch it by being bitten by an infected tick when walking in a forest or grassy area in spring and summer. These blood-sucking creatures which attach to your skin are tiny, however – some just the size of a poppy seed – so often go unnoticed.
Warmer temperatures mean Lyme disease is becoming more common in the UK, with the Southeast showing a very high tick population. According to Public Health England, infections rose by as much as 35 per cent between 2016 and 2017, with up to 3,000 new cases every year.
The initial bite can cause a circular red rash with a central red area, called a bull’s-eye rash, but this is often missed because it is neither hot nor itchy. To make it harder to identify, the rash can appear at any time from three days to three months after contracting the infection. It may even appear years later as a bluish-red discolouration and swelling on the legs and arms. According to the British Medical Journal, the rash ‘is not always present, noticed or recognised, and other symptoms overlap with many common conditions’.
Lyme disease can cause fevers, sweats, swollen glands, malaise, fatigue, neck pain or stiffness, joint or muscle pains, as well as headaches and memory loss – sharing many of the nonspecific symptoms of flu and other infections. Yet it can go on for months or years, causing serious inflammation and damage to major organs such as the heart, as well as arthritis and neurological problems.
John Caudwell, the founder of Phones 4u, knows more than anyone about the impact of this disease, which has affected 11 members of his family, some of whom, including his son, are still suffering years later. John set up a charity to raise awareness and improve treatment (caudwelllyme.com).
Providing earlier diagnosis and treatment leads to better patient outcomes by reducing long-term complications. Recovery may take months or years, while some people never fully get over it. Thankfully, with antibiotic treatment, most do.
Given the vague symptoms, testing is important. See your GP if you’ve been bitten by a tick or if you get flu-like symptoms – feeling hot and shivery, headaches, aching muscles, feeling sick – within a month of visiting forests or grassy areas or a location where infected ticks have been found, or if you find a circular red rash. Don’t forget to tell the doctor that you’ve been in such a place. There are two main blood tests that can help diagnose Lyme disease – ELISA and western blot – although they aren’t always accurate and results can take up to six weeks. You may need to be treated with antibiotics, possibly more than one course, to clear the infection completely.
So what precautions can you take to avoid tick bites? Cover skin when walking outdoors, tuck trousers into socks, use insect repellent such as Deet on clothes and skin, and brush ticks from clothes. Always check pets, children – and yourself – all over after walking in potentially infested areas.
If you find a tick, use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp it as close to the skin as possible. Slowly and carefully pull upwards without crushing or squeezing the tick. Dispose of it and clean the site with soap and water or antiseptic. The risk of contracting Lyme disease is low as most ticks are not infected and you don’t need to do anything else unless you get ill.
For more information, visit nhs.uk/conditions/lyme-disease.
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