What is Lyme disease, what are the symptoms and how can it be treated?

Olivia Petter, Sabrina Barr, Katie O'Malley

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection which can lead to severe physical and mental problems if not diagnosed at an early stage.

Individuals who spend the majority of their time outdoors are most at risk of being exposed to the ticks which spread the disease, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) states.

While certain regions have a higher reported incidence of Lyme disease, such as south-east England, south-west England and Scotland, NICE outlines that the disease can be caught in any area of the UK.

So, what is Lyme disease and how is it transmitted?

Here's everything you need to know:

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi.

It is typically spread to humans via infected ticks, which will have already bitten an infected animal such as deer, mouse, vole or hedgehog. Other insects also carry the disease.

Ticks with Lyme disease can be found across the UK, but are most prevalent in grassy, wooded areas.

They are most active between March and October.

The disease was first reported in the US in 1977 in Old Lyme, Connecticut, hence how it acquired its name.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can differ from person to person, but many people with Lyme disease will develop a circular red "bullseye" rash around the tick bite within four weeks of being bitten.

However, not all those infected will develop a rash, the NHS states, with some people experiencing flu-like symptoms, such as headaches, joint pain and a high temperature.

According to new draft guidance published by NICE in February, doctors are advised not to wait for a potential Lyme disease patient's blood test results if they have a "bullseye" rash.

"If a characteristic bull's eye rash is present, healthcare professionals should feel confident in diagnosing Lyme disease," said Professor Gillian Leng, director of health and social care at Nice.

While most tick bites are harmless, you are advised to seek help from your GP if you’ve recently been bitten by a tick and subsequently experience the aforementioned symptoms.

Research has also linked Lyme disease to a series of neuropsychological conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

How is it treated?

Lyme disease, when recognised, is usually treated with a course of antibiotics prescribed by a GP.

Those experiencing severe symptoms - such as extreme fatigue, chronic pain and/or depression - may be referred to a specialist for stronger antibiotics.

The majority of those infected will make a full recovery within a few months.

However, infection does not lead to lifelong immunity and it is possible for sufferers to be re-infected and develop the disease again.

How can you prevent it?

The NHS advises covering your skin when walking in wooded and grassy areas, suggesting tucking your trousers into your socks.

Insect repellant can also be helpful in detracting ticks, while wearing light-coloured clothing can make them easier to spot and brush off.

What to do if you’re bitten by a tick

If you are bitten by a tick, you may not necessarily notice it as they aren’t always painful.

If you spot one on your skin, you should use either tweezers or a specialist tick-removal tool to pull it upwards and out of your skin, the NHS recommends.

Dispose of the tick safely, ensuring you do not squeeze it, and clean the bitten area with antiseptic.

How common is it?

According to Public Health England, around 1,000 cases of Lyme disease are serologically diagnosed in England and Wales every year.

Incidents of Lyme disease may also be confirmed without any need for testing in a laboratory.

NICE adds that the "true number of cases is currently unknown".

The NHS states that symptoms of Lyme disease can develop in anyone, anywhere. However, researchers from the University of Liverpool recently found that older women living in more affluent rural areas in the UK are among the most at risk of contracting the condition.

The study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, analysed the data of more than 2,000 hospital patients across England and Wales and found that people aged between 61 and 65, as well as children aged six to 10, were more likely to be diagnosed with the tick-borne condition.

John Tulloch, an author of the study and researcher at the University of Liverpool, said that while the data shows a predominance of cases among white women over the age of 60, the reasons for this are “hard to explain”.

Tulloch added that the findings could be related to differences in health-seeking behaviour between women and men and an increased exposure to tick habitats due to leisure activities in children and older people.

The findings also showed that the local UK authorities with the highest number of cases were Purbeck, with 3.13 cases per 100,000 people per year, New Forest (2.58 cases) and East Dorset (2.32 cases).