What are the signs and symptoms of lyme disease and how do you reduce the risk of getting a tick bite?

Lyme disease is often characterised by a 'bulls eye' rash [Photo: Getty]
Lyme disease is often characterised by a 'bulls eye' rash [Photo: Getty]

Lyme disease cases are on the rise, with concerning new research revealing the incidence rate could be three times what was previously thought.

A study, published in the BMJ Open, found that up to 8,000 people a year in the UK may suffer from the disease.

The Lyme disease incidence rate was previously estimated to be 2,000 to 3,000 cases a year.

However, according to the new estimate, there were 7,738 cases in 2012 – and this figure could increase to more than 8,000 in 2019, if rates increase at the same rate they have since 2012.

Despite concern over the new figures, many people are still unsure what Lyme disease actually is and how it is spread.

What is lyme disease?

According to the NHS Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can be spread to humans by infected ticks.

“Lyme borreliosis (most commonly known as Lyme disease) is a bacterial infection that’s spread through tick bites,” explains Dr Diana Gall from Doctor4U. “If you’re bitten by an infected tick, the bacteria can spread into your blood, meaning that you’re at risk of developing Lyme disease, but not all ticks carry the bacteria, so treatment isn’t always necessary, even if you’ve been bitten.”

Ticks are generally found in forests, woodlands and grassy areas, but they can also be found in gardens and parks.

“It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease so that you can find the right treatment as soon as you can,” she adds.

READ MORE: A tick lodged in man’s eye and had to be pried off

What are the symptoms of lyme disease?

Dr Gall says one of the main symptoms of early lyme disease is a circular red skin rash around a tick bite.

“The infection is often characterised by a circular red rash that usually forms the shape of a bullseye on a dartboard, which appears within 1-4 weeks of the bite,” she explains.

However, not everyone that’s infected with Lyme disease will develop a rash.

“Sometimes, the only telling factors of Lyme disease are flu-like symptoms such as a high temperature, headaches, muscle and joint pain, and fatigue,” Dr Gall adds.

Ticks carry lyme disease [Photo: Getty]
Ticks carry lyme disease [Photo: Getty]

What do you do if you think you’ve been bitten by a tick?

According to LloydsPharmacy’s Matt Courtney Smith because tick bites are not usually painful some people may be unaware that they have even been bitten.

“But they can cause swelling, itchiness and bruising and appear as a small red lump on the skin,” he explains.

“Ticks often remain attached to the skin and should be removed carefully with a pair of fine-tipped tweezers. Grip the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull steadily away from the skin,” Courtney Smith explains.

“The area should then be washed with soap and water and an antiseptic cream applied to the skin around the bite to reduce itching.”

If the infection is untreated, it can progress into a more severe form of Lyme disease, where symptoms such as swollen joints, nerve issues, heart problems and difficulties with memory and concentration have been reported.

“If you suspect that you might have Lyme disease, you should make an appointment with your doctor who’ll send you for a diagnostic blood test,” Dr Gall advises.

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How is lyme disease treated?

Thankfully, Lyme disease is a treatable condition, with diagnosed patients being given a 2-4 week course of antibiotics to kill the bacteria.

“In rare cases, some people might still display symptoms for a long time after they’ve been treated, but a vast majority will recover quickly,” Dr Gall explains.

How do you stop yourself getting a tick on holiday?

It isn’t just in the UK that you need to be tick-aware, as the bugs are found across the globe, so is something you should keep in mind if you head somewhere hot on holiday this year.

“Ticks are found in woodland areas and overgrown fields which can be found in most countries,” says Courtney Smith.

“They often attach themselves to the skin and bite in warm, moist areas such as groin or armpit. The bite itself is often itchy and causes redness on the surrounding skin. Although usually harmless, as well as lyme disease ticks can also carry African tick-borne fever so it is important to avoid bites when possible, particularly if you are travelling abroad.”

To reduce the risk of getting bitten by a tick Dr Gall recommends covering as much of your skin as possible, as it’s harder for the ticks to bite through material.

“Other preventative measures you can take include wearing insect repellent, avoiding walking through grassy areas, and wearing light coloured clothing so it’s easier to spot ticks,” Dr Gall adds.

She also recommends checking your skin (and your pets if you have any) after being outdoors.

“You should also pay attention to your scalp and any skin folds, as ticks may be hiding in these areas,” she adds.