Lyme disease is becoming increasingly common as growing numbers of ticks are being found in the suburbs as well as rural areas. The number of cases has quadrupled in just 12 years.
Reported cases in England and Wales rose from 268 in 2001 to more than 1,000 in 2013. However, experts estimate that the true figure is much higher and believe there are around 3,000 cases a year in England and Wales.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread to humans by infected ticks – tiny spider-like creatures found in woodland and heath areas. The disease can be treated effectively if detected early on but if it is left untreated, it can cause severe and long-lasting symptoms.
The growing prevalence of Lyme disease is thought to be linked to climate change, which is prolonging the life of infected ticks. Warmer winters are allowing the tick population to grow and spread beyond rural areas, putting a much higher number of people at risk.
Howard Carter, a bite protection expert, says that he found sheep or deer ticks in three quarters of London’s parks in the last year and says it is likely that there are just as many in parks across Britain.
“The number of ticks is increasing all the time and quite dramatically,” he says. “People really do need to be aware of the impact these things can have on health. If you are bitten, it is not a little itch that goes away after a couple of days. It can be life-changing or even fatal.”
If you notice any signs that you may have been bitten by an infected tick, see your GP immediately. Bites by infected ticks often cause a distinctive circular rash, which may look like a bull’s-eye on a dart board. However, one in three people with Lyme disease don’t develop this rash so look out for other signs too. In the weeks following the bite, symptoms can include fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, joint pain, fever and chills.
When you’re spending time in rural areas or parks, take steps to reduce your risk of infection. Keep to footpaths, and cover up with long-sleeved clothing and trousers tucked into your socks. Use insect repellent on any exposed skin and inspect your skin for ticks – particularly at the end of the day – so you can remove them. You should also check your pets for ticks to ensure they don’t bring them into the home.