The number of people contracting Lyme disease has quadrupled in the last 12 years, with over 1000 cases of the disease diagnosed in 2013. What was once a relatively rare illness in the UK seems to be increasing and health professionals are concerned about the rise. In addition, there has been a surge in cases within urban areas, showing this is not just a rural problem. Indeed, several parks in London, such as Richmond Park, have been found to contain the ticks that are responsible for transmitting Lyme disease.
So what is Lyme disease? Lyme disease is transmitted by small ticks, which are small spider like creatures often found in woodlands and heath areas. They feed on the blood of birds and mammals and can also bite humans if the opportunity arises. Some ticks carry a bacterial infection that is responsible for the disease. Ticks that carry the disease can be found throughout Europe, the UK and also North America. If detected early on Lyme disease can often be treated effectively but its initial symptoms are similar to flu and can therefore go undiagnosed; if the diagnosis, and thus treatment, is delayed there is a risk of developing more severe symptoms such as neurological damage and debilitating fatigue in humans.
One of the first indications of Lyme disease can be a red, circular rash at the site of the tick bite, usually around 3 to 30 days after being bitten. The rash may increase over several days and weeks. Typically, it’s around 15cm (6 inches) across, but it can be much larger or smaller than this. Some people may develop several rashes in different parts of their body. However, around one in three people with Lyme disease won’t develop this rash.
In the early stages of the disease some people with Lyme disease also experience flu-like symptoms, such as tiredness (fatigue), muscle pain, joint pain, headaches, a high temperature (fever), chills and neck stiffness. If left untreated more severe symptoms can develop, these may take months or even years to fully develop and include: pain and swelling in the joints, nervous system problems, memory problems, heart problems and even meningitis. Some of these symptoms will slowly get better with treatment, although they can persist if treatment is started late.
Lyme disease is generally treated with a course of antibiotics. However, awareness of the disease and prevention is the best course of action. This means reducing the risk of being bitten by a tick, especially if you spend time in woodland or heath. Simple precautions can reduce the risk of a tick bite, these include: sticking to footpaths and avoiding long grass areas when out walking, cover up by wearing clothes that cover the skin to reduce the risk of a bite and ensuring lower legs and ankles are covered with thick materials and wear shoes or boots, using insect repellent and checking your skin and clothing for ticks after a walk, especially if you have been in an area where ticks are known to be present.
It is not certain why the number of Lyme disease cases has risen in recent years, it could be that more people are becoming aware of it and are diagnosing the disease more often. Other factors could include warmer winters that prolong the life of the ticks, immigration from central and eastern Europe where Lyme disease is more common and an increase in the number of housing developments in rural areas. Although still rare in the UK, with around 1000 cases diagnosed in 2013, raising awareness of Lyme disease is important so people can recognise possible symptoms and seek medical treatment early.