Dr Tim Brooks, head of the Rare and Imported Pathogens laboratory at Public Health England, raves that Lyme disease is honestly a fascinating disease. Attempting to solve the problem of Lyme disease (as well as other bugs such as ebola) is his vocation. Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread by infected ticks and is an especially complex puzzle, with not much data available so far. It can appear in several forms, sometimes causing long-term neurological symptoms that could be mistaken for other conditions, such as motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis.
After a huge increase in cases this year – believed to be caused by increased public awareness and growing numbers of the ticks that spread the disease – the Department of Health intends to install a network of experts around the UK to support hospital staff and GPs who are not familiar with Lyme disease. While that happens, beware of misinformation online. Firstly, the strains vary according to country, and no, you can’t get it from other people. About 2,000 to 3,000 people in the UK in the UK get Lyme disease each year, and majority of the cases are simple to treat. If caught late, complications arise in a minority of cases. This is how you can best avoid being infected:
Be tick aware
These tiny ticks contain a natural anesthetic in their saliva which results in most people not noticing the ticks burrowing into their skin to fee on blood. The ticks have to be attached for 16 hours before they will transmit the disease, therefore it is worth checking yourself and any children – from scalp to toes – after being outdoors, particularly in the summer. Using insect repellant and covering up can help avert them. The ticks don’t jump, but instead sit on tall plants or grass, waiting for possible hosts to brush against them. Although well-fed adult ticks – which look like mini, eight-legged balloons or ears of sweetcorn – appear the most alarming, and will have a bigger chance to pick up Lyme disease, the minute dot-like nymphs (the period between larva and adult ticks) are more likely to bite you.
Once a tick has secured onto a host, the strategy is to pull it out without squeezing secretions into the wound, thus boosting the possibility of infection – Lyme disease is not the only infection they carry – or leaving their barbed mouthparts in the wound. Use a tick removal tool to lever and twist it out, or cautiously use pointed tweezers, as close to the skin as possible, to firmly pull outwards, without twisting. Thereafter, clean the wound and don’t panic.
Symptoms of Lyme disease
Responses to Lyme disease are different from person to person. Some people never feel any effects. For other people, it may clear up on its own. The most frequent first signs – which can take between three and thirty days to show – are a target-shaped around surrounding the bite, and flu-like symptoms. According to Brooks, probably 25-30% of cases in the UK don’t present a rash. Tell your GP if you do get any of these symptoms after a tick bite, and your GP will get your blood tested. In early stages of infection, blood tests can come out negative, so if Lyme disease is still suspected, it may be necessary to retest.
Other symptoms include Bell’s palsy (paralysis or weakness to one side of the face) in children, meningitis in adults, memory and concentration problems, pain and numbness in the limbs and headaches. Arthritis and inflammation of the heart are rare symptoms.
If symptoms of Lyme disease don’t arise until later or are missed earlier on, Lyme disease is harder to treat. Following a month-long treatment involving intravenous antibiotics, majority of people will recover; however, some may have symptoms for up to a year. Some patients will require a second treatment, and according to Brooks, a very small portion of these patients will go on to have more symptoms. This could be because the organism damaged nerve tissue, or because the organism was not eliminated.
Brook says that even when clear of Lyme disease, the organism can change the way it appears to the immune system, so you can get it again and again.