Lyme Disease is an increasingly common problem, spreading particularly among people who spend time in forest and woodland, moorland and heath. It is transmitted from animal to human by the bite of an adult female tick, which lives on deer, foxes, squirrels, sheep and rodents. The tick requires conditions of high humidity, such as are found in moist, coarse permanent vegetation. The ticks’ feeding phase occurs largely between late March and late May/early June and from August to October.
Symptoms tend to imitate other illnesses, so can be difficult to spot, but look out for: a bullseye shaped rash with a clear centre inside a red ring at least two inches across – the first stage of the disease, which is usually apparent within a month of infection. This is generally accompanied by joint pains and flu-like symptoms. NB: Not all cases have started with a rash.
Stage two can occur weeks, months or even years later, when joint pains, which often move from one joint to another with pain-free periods in between, affect the body. If neglected, these can inflict permanent damage in the joints.
Stage three can produce a wide range of symptoms, including arthritis, serious neurological disorders and loss of memory. The patient often experiences the same sort of fatigue that occurs after a number of other infections, especially those due to viruses.
85-90% of people with chronic Lyme arthritis do improve, but prompt diagnosis and treatment are vital. Diagnosis at all stages is done by blood tests, though if the test shows positive, it does not necessarily mean that the individual has Lyme Disease, or that they will necessarily develop it. It signifies that they have been exposed to the infecting organism and have produced antibodies to the bacterium.
No preventative vaccine exists, and there is no screening programme which will effectively prevent this disease. If you have any of the symptoms which cannot otherwise be convincingly explained, and have been exposed to ticks, you should get your GP to organise a blood test. Early treatment with antibiotics stops the course of the disease and reduces the incidence of complications.
PRECAUTIONS TO TAKE
The main avoidance strategy is to cover up all exposed skin, preferably with garments of a tightly woven material, when walking through moorland and grasses, or any areas where the host animals are found. Tuck trousers into boots. Apply insect repellent to any exposed skin.
NB: ticks may stay on clothing or on dogs’ fur for several days. On returning home, check clothing carefully and shake or brush any garments/boots out of doors, paying particular attention to woollens, tweeds etc.
Carefully inspect your skin for ticks when you undress, remembering that some ticks are smaller than a pin head, and that they can reach parts of the body not easily seen.
Comb your dog with a fine comb, preferably outdoors.
The risk of transmission of infection is reduced if an infected tick is removed from the skin within 24 hours. If you find a tick, try to remove it without leaving the mouth-parts behind. The feeding tick lies parallel to the skin with its mouth-part at right angles to the skin. Use a pair of tweezers to grasp the tick firmly, as close as possible to your skin, and pull it straight out without twisting or excessive pulling and jerking. I find that the tick is more likely to come out mouth-piece intact if the tweezer tips are heated up first over a flame, to as hot a temperature as the skin will bear. But if the tick is swollen, try not to burst it in the process of removal.
Following extraction, clean the area of the bite with an antiseptic wipe or soap and water.
The above information comes from advice given to people going on field trips by Scottish Natural Heritage