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Should you be worried about Lyme disease if you live in the UK? And just how serious is it?
Milder winters and earlier springs allow more ticks to survive, and a longer season to attach to you
February 10, 2015 | By:
Lyme disease has hit the news, with US TV star Yolanda Foster searching for help with the debilitating illness. But we are at risk in the UK, too
Health. Lyme disease. Yolanda and David Foster. Grammys Jan 2015

Yolanda arrives at the Grammys last month with husband David, who has said she is “just worn out” by the illness

She may be best known for her role as one of the drama queens in TV’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but in real life, Yolanda Foster – mother of up-and-coming American model Gigi Hadid – is having an ongoing battle with Lyme disease.

As Foster travels the world looking for a cure, photographs of the reality TV star looking decidedly less polished and preened than usual have shocked fans of the OTT show. But why should you be bothered? Isn’t Lyme disease something for our cousins across the pond to be concerned about?

The fact is, Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis) is becoming more common here too. It’s caused by the bite of a tick infected with Borellia bacteria, and is the most common tick-borne disease in the Northern Hemisphere. Just ask TV survival expert Ray Mears, whose 14-year battle with Lyme disease meant he almost had to give up working.

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In the US it’s thought to affect 300,000 people a year and costs around $1.3 billion to treat. In the UK, the 3,000 or so cases of Lyme disease quoted by Public Health England may be a significant underestimation, says the charity Lyme Disease Action, which believes the real figure may be closer to 15,000.

More importantly, cases in the UK are on the rise, probably for a combination of reasons. Stella Huyshe-Shires, chair of Lyme Disease Action, says: “There’s been a growth in gardening for leisure and in people walking and camping. The disease appears to be spreading, so more ticks are carrying it.

“Milder winters and earlier springs also allow more ticks to survive and give them a longer season for attaching to people.”

How do you get Lyme disease?

Lyme disease was named after a town in Connecticut called Old Lyme, where a cluster of cases were identified in 1975. The ticks that cause it are tiny – about the size of a poppy seed – and are carried by deer, small mammals and birds.

Lyme disease hotspots read like a wish list for hiking enthusiasts, including Exmoor, the New Forest, the South Downs, Thetford Forest, the Lake District, the North York Moors, the Scottish Highlands and parts of Wiltshire, Berkshire, Surrey and West Sussex. But you can get bitten in a city park or in your back garden.

The ticks sense their human prey by detecting carbon dioxide when you exhale, then hook themselves on to your clothing or skin. And because the little blighters are so small and their bites don’t sting or itch (conveniently, they inject you with anaesthetic first), you may not realise you’ve been bitten.

What are the symptoms?

The first thing you may notice is a circular red rash that spreads slowly (though the rash doesn’t always appear). Other early signs include flu-like symptoms such as headache, severe fatigue, muscle and joint pain, plus a stiff neck, disturbed sleep, blurred vision and swollen glands.

If it isn’t treated, Lyme disease can affect your heart and your nervous system. A very small number of people going on to develop bacterial meningitis or myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscles).

Yolanda Foster claims it has affected her brain function to such an extent that she’s unable to read, write, watch TV or anything else that requires her to process information.

So Lyme disease is serious then…

Yes, but if it’s caught early, Lyme disease can be treated effectively with antibiotics. Unfortunately it’s notoriously difficult to diagnose, as it shares symptoms with other common conditions.

According to Huyshe-Shires, Lyme disease may also be under-diagnosed because doctors remain unaware of how serious and widespread it is in this country. “Many haven’t heard of the disease or think it doesn’t occur in their area,” she says.

Even if your GP does suspect it, the tests used to diagnose Lyme disease are far from perfect, causing both false-positive and false-negative results. “Many doctors believe the blood tests are failsafe, but there are several reasons why someone with definite Lyme disease may test negative,” says Huyshe-Shires.

Should we be worried?

Not worried, just more aware. Prevention is the best option when it comes to Lyme disease. So whenever you’re outdoors during tick season (late spring through to autumn), follow these tips:

  • Whenever possible, wear long sleeves and trousers
  • Avoid long grass, bracken and areas of overgrown vegetation. Keep to pathways whenever possible
  • Use an insect repellent that’s effective against ticks
  • Check your skin and clothing for ticks regularly while you’re out, and again when you get home. Check your animals for ticks, too
  • If you find a tick, remove it immediately using a tick removal tool (the O’Tom Tick Twister). Don’t burn it off or squash it with your fingers, as this increases the chance of infection

Not all ticks carry Lyme disease. Studies suggest between two and 17 per cent of ticks are affected. But if you have – or suspect you have – been bitten, look out for the early symptoms over the following few weeks.

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