Health

Lyme disease: how to spot it

August 21st 2017 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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High profile sufferers such as ex-England Rugby star Matt Dawson and models Christy Turlington and Bella Hadid are increasing our awareness of a debilitating disease that's on the rise. Here's what you need to know

Former England rugby player Matt Dawson has revealed that he has undergone multiple operations on his heart owing to a case of Lyme disease that went undiagnosed. He was bitten by a tick in a London park, and despite him experiencing flu-like symptoms afterwards, the infection spread throughout his body before being recognised.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by tick bites. The most common symptoms include a fever, fatigue, headache and a skin rash that often looks like a bullseye target. The more severe symptoms include Bell’s Palsy (paralysis on one side of the face), pain and swelling of the joints and heart palpitations. As the infection spreads, it can affect the nervous system, the joints and the heart and if inadequately treated or treated late, it may be difficult to cure and symptoms can become chronic. Dawson revealed that he has undergone multiple operations on his heart to remove scar tissue build up owing to a case of Lyme disease that went undiagnosed for too long. He is still on medication to keep his heart healthy.

While he has now recovered, Dawson says that he fought the disease for 18 months, and still can't do as much exercise as he would like due to the impact it had on his heart in particular. Given that incidences of Lyme disease are most commonly associated with rural woodland environments, the fact that Dawson contracted it in a city means that it's more important than ever that we're clued up on the condition. He’s not the only high-profile person to open up about the disease- Bella Hadid, her mother Yolanda and brother Anwar are sufferers, with Ben Stiller, Christy Turlington and Avril Lavigne also among the stars who’ve been treated for Lyme.

“It is vital to educate people about Lyme disease, because it is often misdiagnosed. Awareness is crucial as people need to learn how to protect themselves, their families, and their pets from this potentially dangerous disease," says Natasha Metcalf of Lyme Disease UK’s patient support network. “Public Health England estimates that there are around 2000-3000 new cases per year, whereas Caudwell LymeCo charity and Lyme Disease UK believe that there could be as many as 45,000. There is a huge discrepancy in estimates, highlighting the fact that the true number is unknown.

“The fact is, thousands of people will be infected this year and are many are likely to go untreated which can leave people disabled or misdiagnosed with conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis. Cases are growing by 65 per cent per year worldwide and without intervention, Lyme disease is estimated to be an official epidemic by the year 2028.” Lyme Disease UK has recently launched its ‘Wake Up to Lyme’ campaign in order to spread the word in terms of the general public’s understanding of the increasingly common condition.

Clueing yourself up on the telltale signs of Lyme disease, plus how you can avoid catching it in the first place, will go a long way in terms of stopping the epidemic in its tracks. Dr Edward Gaynor, Bupa UK Clinical Fellow, gave us the brief on all things Lyme:

What is Lyme disease and how is it spread?

“Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by tick bites. Ticks can carry a certain bacteria called Borrelia Burgdorferi which is responsible for the spread of Lyme disease and are often found in areas of deep vegetation such as parks and woodlands. Only a small number of ticks carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, so if you are bitten by a tick, it doesn’t mean you’ll catch the disease.”

Can you catch Lyme disease from others?

“No, Lyme disease is not contagious between humans.”

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?

“Look out for fever, fatigue, headache and a skin rash that often looks like a bull’s-eye target. The rash usually takes between three to 30 days to appear and is usually about 12 inches in diameter. If left unchecked, it could develop into more severe symptoms." (see above).

“If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, seek medical advice or visit your GP straight away.”

What can you do if you're worried - is there a test for it?

“A blood test may be able to determine if you have Lyme disease, which a GP will be able to carry out. In some cases, it could take up to eight weeks to form in your blood and may not be detected straight away. In this case, your GP would usually recommend treatment based on your symptoms alone.”

Natasha adds that testing for Lyme disease is a minefield:

“Lyme disease testing is a complex issue as we don't currently have a reliable test which can confirm or reject a Lyme disease diagnosis or assess when the infection has been successfully treated.

“People can experience false negative results, leading to misdiagnosis or a lack of treatment. Tests from private overseas laboratories which some Lyme doctors prefer to use are rejected by the NHS and often labelled as false positives, so patients are left in a very difficult situation when it comes to which test results to believe. You can read more about testing issues on our website, but in short, we desperately need an accurate test.”

How is Lyme disease treated?

“The type of treatment you receive will depend on the stage of your condition. Typically, treatment will involve a course of antibiotics.”

Natasha emphasises, however, that antibiotics aren’t a cure-all in every case:

“The standard treatment is a few weeks' of oral antibiotics but some doctors feel that this is not long enough and there is research to suggest that the bacteria can persist beyond a short course of antibiotics, leading to a potentially chronic condition, requiring longer courses of treatment. More research into effective treatment protocols is needed. There is also the issue of people who were not treated immediately after a tick bite as they may begin to experience chronic health problems which cannot be addressed by a short course of antibiotics. Getting treated without delay following a tick bite is crucial.”

Where are the riskiest places/situations for catching it and how can you protect yourself?

“Ticks usually live in areas of overgrown vegetation such as parks and woodlands. If you are in these types of areas, try to stick to the footpath if you’re near long-grass, use insect repellent and check your skin for any ticks.”

Natasha also stresses that tick habitats aren’t just limited to the countryside or supposed “hotspots” such as The New Forest:

“It is important to be aware that ticks have been found in urban parks and gardens as well as in woodland in heathland.”

How long does the infection stay in your body?

“The duration of the infection depends on a number of factors, including whether or not you treated the condition early. If caught early and treated, people usually take a course of antibiotics for between two to four weeks.”

Are you immune once you've had it?

“Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that once you’ve had Lyme disease you’re immune to it.”

Why do you think that cases are on the increase across the UK?

“We usually see more cases of Lyme disease at this time of year, as well as during the Autumn and summer months as people tend to spend more time outdoors in dense areas such as parks and woodlands.”

Natasha also thinks that milder winters are contributing to the fact that ticks seem to be more active than ever. As such, the Wake up to Lyme campaign has three clear cut aims in particular to prevent further spread of the disease:

1. All front line medical staff in the UK to be aware of Lyme disease and at least one doctor in each team to have completed the RCGP online course on Lyme disease. At the moment only about 2% GPs have completed it.

2. Every UK household to be aware of the risk of tick bites and Lyme disease and to understand prevention methods and symptoms to look for.

3. Provide support and knowledge to every single UK resident who is infected in 2017.

You can find out more about Lyme disease and get involved in the Wake Up to Lyme campaign here

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