Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that spread to humans by infected ticks. Ticks are tiny spider-like creatures found in woodland areas. These ticks feed on the blood of mammals, including humans. Ticks which carry the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease are found throughout the UK and in other parts of Europe and North America. It’s estimated that there are 2,000 to 3,000 new cases of Lyme disease in England each year; 15% of cases occur while people are abroad. Lyme disease can be treated effectively if it’s detected early on. But if it’s not treated or treatment is delayed, you could be at risk of developing severe and long-lasting symptoms.
What are the Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Humans?
Many people with early Lyme disease may develop a distinctive circular rash at the site of the tick bite, often around three to 30 days after being bitten. This is known as erythema migrans. The rash looks as looking like a bull’s-eye on a dart board. The affected area will be red and the edges may feel slightly raised.
The size of the rash varied significantly and it can expand over several days or weeks. It’s around 15cm across; however, it can be much larger or smaller than this. Some people may develop several rashes in different parts of their body. Around one in three people with Lyme disease won’t develop this rash.
Some people with Lyme disease may experience flu-like symptoms in the early signs, such as tiredness, muscle pain, joint pain, headaches, a high temperature, chills and neck stiffness. More serious symptoms can develop several weeks, months or even years if Lyme disease is left untreated or is not treated early on. These include:
- Pain and swelling in the joints.
- Problems affecting the nervous system – such as numbness and pain in your limbs, paralysis of your facial muscles, memory problems and difficulty concentrating
- Heart problems such as inflammation of the heart muscle or sac surrounding the heart, heart block and heart failure
- Inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord which can cause a severe headache, a stiff neck and increased sensitivity to light
Some of these problems can get better slowly with treatment, although they can persist if treatment is late. A few people with Lyme disease go on to develop long-term symptoms similar to those of fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. In this case, it is known as post-infectious Lyme disease. The reason is not clear exactly, but it may to be related to over-activity of your immune system rather than persistent infection.
When to Worry?
You need to see your doctor if you develop any of the symptoms that described above after being bitten by a tick, or if you think that you may have been bitten. Make sure that you let your doctor know if you’ve spent time in woodland areas where ticks are known to live.
Diagnosing Lyme disease is commonly very difficult because many of the symptoms are similar to other conditions. A spreading rash some days after a known tick bite need to be treated with appropriate antibiotics without waiting for the results of a blood test.
You can carry out blood tests to confirm the diagnosis after a few weeks; however, these can be negative in the early stages of the infection. You may need to be re-tested if Lyme disease is suspected after a negative test result. In the UK, two types of blood test are used to ensure Lyme disease is diagnosed accurately because a single blood test can sometimes produce a positive result even when a person doesn’t have the infection. If you have post-infectious Lyme disease, you may see a specialist in microbiology .
What’s Causing Lyme disease in Humans?
If a tick bites an animal carrying the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, the tick can also become infected. Then, the tick can transfer the bacteria to a human by biting them. These ticks can be found in any areas with overgrown vegetation where they have access to animals to feed on. They’re common in woodland areas, but you can also be found in gardens or parks. Ticks don’t jump or fly; however, they can climb on to your clothes or skin if you brush against something they’re on. Then, they bite into the skin and start to feed on your blood.
If the tick remains attached to your skin for more than 24 hours, you’re more likely to become infected. However, ticks are very small and their bites are not painful; therefore, you may not realise you have one attached to your skin.
Who’s at risk?
People who spend time in woodland areas in the UK and parts of Europe or North America are most at risk of developing Lyme disease. Most tick bites happen in late spring, early summer and autumn because these are the times of year when most people take part in outdoor activities.
It’s thought only a small proportion of ticks can carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, so being bitten doesn’t mean you’ll be infected. But also it’s important to be aware of the risk and seek medical advice if you start to feel unwell.
How to Treat Lyme disease in Humans?
If you develop symptoms of Lyme disease, you will be given a course of antibiotic tablets, capsules or liquid. Most cases will require a 2-4 week course, depending on the stage of the condition. If you are prescribed antibiotics, it’s important to finish the course even if you are feeling better, because this will help ensure all the bacteria are killed.
If your symptoms are severe, you should be referred to a specialist to have antibiotic injections.
Some antibiotics that used to treat Lyme disease can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. In this case, you need to avoid prolonged exposure to the sun and not use sunbeds until after you have finished the treatment.
Currently, there’s no clear consensus on the best treatment for post-infectious Lyme disease because the underlying cause is not yet clear. Be aware of internet sites offering alternative diagnostic tests and treatments.
How to Prevent Lyme disease in Humans?
There is currently no vaccine available to prevent Lyme disease. The best way to prevent the condition is to be aware of the risks when you visit areas where ticks are found and to take sensible precautions.
You can reduce the risk of infection by:
- keeping to footpaths.
- Wearing appropriate clothing in tick-infested areas wearing light-coloured fabrics that may help you spot a tick on your clothes
- Using insect repellent on exposed skin
- Inspecting your skin for tick including your head, neck and skin folds
- Checking your children’s head and neck areas making sure ticks are not brought home on your clothes
- Checking that pets do not bring ticks into your home in their fur
How to remove a tick?
If you find a tick on your or your child’s skin, remove it by gripping it as close to the skin as possible, using fine-toothed tweezers. Pull steadily away from the skin without twisting or crushing the tick. Wash your skin with water and soap afterwards, and apply an antiseptic cream to the skin around the bite. Don’t use a lit cigarette end, a match head or substances to force the tick out.
Chronic Lyme disease
There has recently been a lot of focus on Lyme disease media, with much attention on people who’ve been diagnosed with “chronic Lyme disease”.
This term is used by some people to describe persistent symptoms such as tiredness, aches and pains in the absence of a confirmed Lyme disease infection. It’s different to “post-infectious Lyme disease” which is used to describe persistent symptoms after a confirmed and treated infection.
It’s very important to be aware that a diagnosis of chronic Lyme disease is controversial. Experts do not agree on whether the condition exists, or whether the symptoms are caused by a different, undiagnosed problem.
However, there’s no evidence to suggest people diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease will pass the condition on to others, and there’s little clear evidence about how best to treat it.