Watch out, watch out, ticks are about!
May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month. Lyme disease is bacterial infection spread by infected deer ticks. It is the most common tick-borne infectious disease with 2000- 3000 new cases in the UK every year, and is particularly prevalent in the Southern Counties, Yorkshire Moors, Lake District and the Scottish Highlands, probably due to increasing numbers of wild deer in these areas.
Ticks are tiny spider-like creatures found on foliage and long grass in parks, woodlands, heathland and gardens. Ticks cannot jump or fly but climb on to humans and animals as they pass by. They then attach themselves by burrowing their head under the skin, where they can remain for up to 72 hours, swelling up considerably as they suck blood. Because they are so small, and their bite is not painful, it is very easy to have a tick bite without noticing. Most tick bites are not a problem, but a bite from an infected tick can cause Lyme disease.
Infected ticks only release the bacterium into the bloodstream 24-48 hours after the tick bite, so the longer an infected tick remains attached, the greater the risk of contracting Lyme disease. Initial symptoms can include a circular red rash, which is not itchy or painful, within 3-30 days of being bitten. The rash may spread outwards slowly until it resembles the bullseye on a dartboard, before gradually fading. There may also be mild flu-like symptoms such as headaches, high temperature, tiredness, neck stiffness, and arm and leg pains, which usually resolve after a few days.
If diagnosed early, Lyme disease can easily be treated with a 2-4 week course of antibiotics. Failure to diagnose and treat early can cause more serious symptoms to develop weeks, months, or even years after the original bite. These include painful and swollen joints (inflammatory arthritis), limb pain and numbness, facial muscle paralysis, memory or concentration problems, heart problems (myocarditis or pericarditis), and disorders of the nervous system such as meningitis or encephalitis.
These may require a prolonged course of antibiotics, often given intravenously, but some symptoms may persist for a long time. A few people develop “post-infectious Lyme disease” with long-term symptoms similar to those of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia, but it is not know why this happens, or how best to treat it.
You can reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease by using an insect repellent on exposed skin, wearing long-sleeved tops and tucking trousers into your socks, and keeping to footpaths and avoiding long grass or dense vegetation in tick-infested areas. If you go out into the countryside check for ticks on your clothes or exposed skin, and in particular check the head, neck and scalp of your children, before returning home to avoid taking ticks home with you. You should also regularly check your pet cats and dogs for ticks, and consider using a tick preventative medication.
If you find a tick on your skin, remove it as soon as possible using either fine-tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool as close to the head of the tick as possible, and pull upwards slowly and firmly to avoid leaving the mouthparts in the skin, where they can cause a localised infection. Wash the area thoroughly and apply an antiseptic. Monitor the area for any changes for several weeks. If you develop symptoms, visit your GP and tell them you have been bitten by a tick. NEVER try to burn the tick off, squeeze the tick or apply any other substances like petroleum jelly to the tick as these may cause the tick to regurgitate infected material into the skin, increasing the risk of getting Lyme disease.
Enjoy yourself in the British countryside, but be tick aware.