What is Lyme Disease?

When out in the woods, you’re sharing the environment with many insects and flying creatures such as mosquitoes and also ticks. It might be an unpleasant thought but, on a positive note, insect bites and disease transmission is far less common here in the UK than in many tropical environments but it is on the increase.

What exactly is Lyme Disease?

It is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdoferi and, in almost all cases, it is transmitted to humans by the bite of a tick infected with these bacteria.

How did it get its Name and is it a new Disease?

There have been recorded cases of the disease in the UK dating back to Victorian times. However, it came to prominence in the mid-70s when there was an outbreak of arthritis connected to tick bites in over 30 residents in Old Lyme, Connecticut USA – hence how it got its name.

What are the Symptoms of the Disease?

The disease manifests itself in a variety of symptoms. An expanding rash or bruise appears first which starts at the point where the person has been bitten. This appears as a single red mark or as a a widening ring around the middle. It’s usually only visible after a week or so and it’s hard to detect in the early stages as, unlike a mosquito bite, it won’t necessarily itch or hurt.

When the rash appears sufferers might also experience joint pains, fatigue and fever and as the bacteria continues to spread around the body, a victim might experience other symptoms such as a stiff neck, a sensation of tingling and partial paralysis of facial muscles. If it’s left untreated, the victim might suffer more serious symptoms like painful arthritis, severe headaches and the swelling of joints. This can occur up to a year from being bitten and it can even lead to heart problems and mental disorders, difficulty in concentrating and short-term memory loss.

However, if it’s caught early, then there are usually no problems in treating the disease with antibiotics.

How did it get to the UK and why are Campers and Hikers at Risk?

Climate change is one of the main reasons for the increase in Lyme Disease in the UK, although it is still not as prevalent here as in other parts of the world. As the ticks cling to animals, a relaxation in the quarantine laws might also be a factor. The ticks love to hide in leaves but also cling to tall grass, low tree branches and shrubs. If an animal or human brushes against them, the tick will jump onto them. Forests, woods, heath and moorland are ideal locations for the tick which is why the threat of Lyme Disease is more of a concern for campers, hikers and others who spend much of their time in the woods. In the UK, Lyme Disease can be carried by deer, sheep and other wild mammals and birds.

However, it is not exclusive to rural areas. Any flying creature which has the disease can transmit it to anyone.

What are the best ways of Preventing Lyme Disease?

As the ticks are dark in colour, gardeners, campers, hikers and the like should wear light clothing so that it’s easier to spot a tick if one jumps on you. Ticks can attach themselves to any part of the body but prefer creases like the groin, armpit or the back of the knee. Prevention relies on people being aware of the risk and using sensible measures to avoid being bitten. As well as suitable clothing, you should frequently check your body and other exposed skin areas for ticks if you’re on a hiking or camping trip.

If you do find a tick trying to suck your blood, the chances of Lyme Disease transmission are low if the tick can be removed quickly. The best way to do it is to use tweezers, pulling the tick directly out but being careful not to twist it whilst removing it.

What is the treatment for Lyme Disease?

There is no vaccine as yet to combat the effects of Lyme Disease. Whilst it’s unusual for the illness to be fatal, symptoms can vary from mild to very severe. Treatment is with antibiotics and is most effective if the disease is caught early. It’s aimed at the reduction and elimination of the bacteria. However, a delay in treatment makes it harder to treat.

Education and awareness are probably the best defences to people succumbing to the disease and those of us who love to spend time in outdoor activities certainly should not be alarmed but should be aware.

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