The Scottish Highlands has been declared a high risk region for Lyme disease by the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice). Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread by ticks. If left untreated it can go on to cause meningitis, heart failure, joint pain, neurological problems, or facial paralysis. The disease can be hard to diagnose as people may not realise they have been bitten by a tick, symptoms often don’t occur until several weeks after infection, and early symptoms such as fever or headache are unspecific.
Ticks carrying the bacteria which causes Lyme disease are found all over the UK and in some regions of Europe and North America. Woodland, moorland, and around livestock are favourite environments, but they are found in gardens and parks too. It is thought that between 2000 and 3000 new cases of the disease occur in England and Wales every year, although reporting of diagnoses is inconsistent and Nice has called for a large scale study to establish reliable prevalence information for the UK.
The Nice draft guideline advises doctors to diagnose the disease and treat with antibiotics immediately if patients present with a characteristic “bullseye” shaped rash, referring to a specialist if symptoms persist. It stresses the importance of considering Lyme disease even where the patient does not remember being bitten by a tick or where no rash is visible, as one in three people will not develop a rash.
It is wise to check yourself, children, and pets for ticks after participating in outdoor activities, and to see a doctor if a rash develops or you feel unwell. Symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs are appetite loss and a shifting, recurring lameness. As only a small proportion of the tick population carry the bacteria responsible though, most people and animals bitten by ticks will never develop Lyme disease.