A new study suggests that Lyme disease may be a lot more of a risk in the UK than previously thought.
Lyme disease, an infection spread by ticks, is widespread in some parts of the world, particularly where there are big populations of large mammals such as deer, but research has now revealed that it’s a real risk in the UK too. Ticks transmit the disease when they feed on your blood, although for infection to occur the tick needs to be in place for at least a day. For this reason, adult ticks are less likely to spread the infection because they are more easily seen and removed (see below for how to remove one safely). Smaller, younger ticks are less likely to be seen and removed and so may be in place long enough to spread the infection.
If you do get infected, you’re likely to experience symptoms such as fatigue, fever, headaches and a skin rash. If you suspect you may have Lyme disease it’s extremely important to seek treatment as soon as possible – it can be treated with antibiotics if caught early enough. Doing nothing may allow the disease to progress to the extent where it affects the joints, heart and even the nervous system.
Researchers from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences asked vets from England, Scotland and Wales to randomly select dogs to assess them for ticks and for the Borrelia bacterium which causes Lyme disease. As pet dogs spend their time in environments with their owners, it follows that the owners would be exposed in a similar way to the disease.
The results of the survey, published in the journal Comparative Immunology, Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, revealed that of 3534 dogs, 14% had ticks. While not all samples could be checked for Lyme disease, of those that were 17 tested positive, which is the equivalent of 2.3%. According to previous estimates of the prevalence of Lyme disease, infected ticks on dogs should be around 0.5%, so these results indicate a considerably higher rate of infected ticks.
The study authors theorise that with warmer winters ticks may be active for longer periods and that growing populations of deer may be allowing the tick population to spread and grow.
Safely removing a tick
Although there are many suggested methods for getting a tick to loosen its grip on its own – the heat from a match, nail varnish remover etc – these could cause the tick to regurgitate its stomach contents increasing the risk of infection, not to mention potentially causing you pain or injury too!
Instead, use a pair of tweezers (or have someone else do it for you) to carefully remove the entire body, including the head, of the tick. Try to avoid squeezing the body or twisting as you could end up leaving the head or mouth parts of the tick inside the skin, which increases risk of infection. If you do accidentally separate the body from the head, remove the head using the tweezers too.
Tuck trousers into socks or boots, use insect repellant and wear light coloured clothing so you can see any ticks. Avoid walking in long grass and stick to paths or areas of low vegetation where possible.