What is Lyme Disease? Ticks, Bacteria and Everything Else You Need to Know

By Gerald Lynch on at

It's been called "the greatest threat to public health" in an age by some sufferers, but few in the UK have ever even heard of Lyme disease.

According to laboratory figures from the NHS, the number of confirmed cases of the disease in the UK have quadrupled over the past 12 years, with 2013 (the last year for which numbers are available) seeing more than 1,100 people diagnosed with the illness. However, it's thought that as many as 11,000 people per year in the UK contract the disease but do not act upon it as its symptoms can be slow to show, according to the National Lyme Disease Testing Service

If untreated, Lyme disease can lead to problems with the heart and brain, and can lead to constant pain in joints. Many factors are thought to be involved in the rise of cases, from increased rural housing to climate change and stowaway ticks on travellers and in goods shipped from Eastern Europe.

Here's everything you need to know about Lyme disease.

what is lyme disease

What is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can be contracted by humans bitten by certain types of tick. The borrelia burgdorferi bacteria is the culprit. As the symptoms can take some time to appear, many sufferers initially fail to connect the bites to the illness.

Ticks?! Ew. Where do they live so I can avoid them?

For city dwellers, the ticks are pretty hard to come by, but if you live near or enjoy rambling through woodland or heath areas, you need to be on your guard. The ticks usually feed on birds and small mammals, but they wont say no to human blood if you venture close enough. The ticks which carry the Lyme disease bacteria aren't just found in the UK though – areas of Europe and North America house them too, and it's believed that as much as 15 per cent of UK cases are contracted when abroad.

what is lyme disease

Argh! There's a tick on me! What do I do?

The best way to remove a tick is to  pull the tick out with tweezers as close to your skin as you can manage. Dont twist it off or crush the body – that can leave the tick's head or pincers attached, pumping it's bacterial nastiness into you. Thankfully however, it usually takes longer than 36 hours with the tick attached before the bacteria can take hold, so spot the tiny critters early enough and you should be OK. Anaesthetic in the bites can make it hard to tell just how long you've been being bitten though, so it's best to get it checked by a doctor all the same.

what is lyme disease

So I've been bitten by one of these ticks. What are the symptoms? What does Lyme disease look and feel like?

If you've been exposed to the bacteria carried by the ticks, it'll take between three to 30 days before you notice anything being wrong. Initially, you'll find a circular rash around the point where the tick bit you, looking a little like a bullseye – one circle surrounded by an outer ring. It's quite distinctive. This is followed by flu-like symptoms – tiredness, achey muscles and a high temperature. If untreated early on, these symptoms can advance in severity, causing heart problems, neurological damage and swelling in joints.

Crikey. So how can I get tested?

A simple blood test can confirm whether or not you have Lyme disease, but it'll take a few weeks after a bite has been received before tests can pick up the tell-tale signs it is looking for.

Can Lyme disease be cured?

If doctors identify it quickly enough, treatments can be very effective – usually, a course of antibiotics is enough to fend off the disease at early stages. However, symptoms can become long-lasting if not dealt with early on. Antibiotics including doxycycline, amoxicillin, and cefuroxime have been found to be effective, with treatments usually lasting three weeks.

Any celebrities with Lyme disease? So I don't feel so bad?

A few. Avril Lavigne, Selena Gomez, Bella Hadid and Phones 4U's billionaire founder John Caudwell all suffer from Lyme disease.