UK Lyme disease cases may be three times higher than estimated

Researchers say tick-borne disease ‘is everywhere’ with 8,000 diagnoses likely in 2019

has many symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose. Early symptoms can be similar to those of flu, and about a quarter of cases will develop a circular red rash around the bite. Full clinical diagnosis requires a blood test, but the study found that more than half of patients in 2012, the most recent year with complete data, were treated with only “suspected” or “possible” Lyme disease.

If caught early, most cases can be successfully treated with antibiotics within four weeks, but the infection can lead to permanent damage to the joints and nervous system.

How common is Lyme disease?

According to Public Health England, no more than 10% of the ticks in question have the bacteria that can then cause Lyme disease. The organisation estimates 3,000 people contract the disease a year in the UK. Diagnoses in the US are much more common, at more than 300,000 a year.

How do the ticks spread the disease?

The ticks cling to grasses or other plants in relatively moist areas (Lyme disease cases have been recorded in all parts of Britain) after hitching rides on deer or other animals. They lie in wait for animal flesh to brush past. When it does, they make the leap, swelling up to the size of a pea as they feast on blood. Doctors advise anyone to check their skin for ticks by sight and by hand and remove them carefully without squeezing their bodies. Only see a GP if a rash or flu-like symptoms then develop – and be sure to mention the bite.

How dangerous is Lyme disease?

Left untreated by antibiotics, the bacteria can spread around the body with various effects including the heart condition Lyme carditis. Deaths are rarer still; a 2011 review of 114 deaths supposedly caused by Lyme disease in the US between 1999 and 2003 concluded that only one could be attributed solely to the effects of the disease.

How do you remove a tick?

Once you find a tick, the key is to remove it as quickly as possible. Use specially made very fine tweezers or you can buy claw-shaped tick-removal tools in pharmacies, outdoor pursuit shops and online. If using tweezers, pull the tick directly upwards – do not twist it – and grab it as close to the skin as possible, to ensure you remove the head and mouth.

Advice from Lyme Disease UK

To avoid being bitten:

  • Wear insect repellent during outdoor activities
  • Consider spraying clothing with the repellent permethrin
  • Avoid walking through long grass and stick to pathways
  • Wear long sleeves and tuck trousers into socks
  • Shower and check for ticks when you get home
  • Use tick prevention on pets

If you find a tick:

  • Use tweezers to pull the tick off as soon as possible, trying not to squeeze its body
  • Clean the area with antiseptic
  • Put the tick in a zip-lock bag so it can be tested
  • Tumble-dry clothes at highest heat or wash at a high temperature
  • Check the rest of your body for further ticks
  • If you notice a rash or become unwell, see your GP immediately and raise your concerns about Lyme disease
  • Draw around any rash with a pen and take photos of any changes
  • Be aware of flu-like symptoms