What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection. The infection is spread by ticks that carry the disease, and is also known as lyme borreliosis. It would appear that the disease cannot be passed to other animals, between people or through food. For many people affected by Lyme disease, they will not remember even seeing the tick, or the bite. 

It can only take a few days before the bacteria moves to your central nervous system, muscles, joints, heart and eyes. 

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?

At the earlier stages of infection, a circular red rash can form around the bite, but the bite should not be itchy or painful - it can be warm to the touch. Not everyone who contracts Lyme disease will develop the rash, but the majority will. The rash will often clear from the centre, towards the edges, forming a ‘target lesion’ as it looks like an archery target. 

It can be difficult to diagnose Lyme disease without the visible rash. 

The rash can appear within just four weeks, or it can take up to three months. The rash will tend to stick around for a number of weeks. 

Early symptoms also include feeling like you have the flu (so a high temperature, having a headache, aching joints and a loss of energy). 

Antibiotics can tackle the infection but some people may get longer-lasting symptoms, even after finishing treatment. These are likened to chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. 

Without treatment, symptoms can develop to include a loss of the ability to move one or both sides of your face, painful joints, heart palpitations and severe headaches with a stiff neck. 

How is Lyme disease diagnosed?

There are two types of blood tests that are available. It’s important to note that the blood tests can be unreliable in the early stages as it can occur before the antibodies have developed, so retesting may be necessary. 

Diagnosis of Lyme disease is made based on a combination of symptoms, and whether you may have been exposed to ticks. You may have a blood test to look for specific antibodies. 

How is Lyme disease treated? 

You can be prescribed antibiotics by your doctor to help treat the disease - this will depend upon your symptoms. The antibiotics may need to be taken for as many as 28 days and you will need to finish the course of medication, even if you start to feel better. 

After the course of antibiotics, most people will start to feel better. However, if the symptoms are more severe, you may need to go to hospital for an antibiotic injection. Additionally you can get support from your doctor by getting referred for a care needs assessment, getting in touch with your school or employer to explain that you need a gradual return and communicating with any social care you may need. 

What is post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome?

This refers to the chronic symptoms that occur following treatment, and is also known as chronic Lyme disease. As many as 20% of people who are treated for Lyme disease with antibiotics will be affected by post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. 

Where is Lyme disease most prevalent? 

Within the UK, there are high risk areas like grassy and wooded parts of the Scottish Highlands and in South England. More further afield, the disease is known to be prevalent in parts of Asia, the United States and Canada, as well as parts of central, eastern and northern Europe. 

In the Northern Hemisphere, Lyme disease is the most prevalent disease spread by ticks. The ticks that can spread Lyme disease are expanding their geographical reach, too. 

How can I protect myself from Lyme disease?

If you are walking outdoors, particularly in wooded or grassy areas, you could keep your skin covered to avoid getting bitten, including tucking your trousers into your socks. Wear insect repellent on your skin and clothes, and opt for lighter coloured clothing so it is easier to see a tick. Try to stick to the paths rather than veering off. 

How common is Lyme disease?

Roughly 65,000 people in Europe are diagnosed with Lyme disease. 

It is believed that Lyme disease is three times more common in the UK than current estimates. Between 2001 and 2012, the annual total number of cases had increased ten times over, from 65 cases to 595.

Researchers have looked into records belonging to more than eight million people in the UK, with 4,083 cases of Lyme disease detected. Of those affected, 1,702 people had clinically diagnosed Lyme disease.

In 2019, it is believed that the UK could see over 8,000 cases diagnosed.