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Lyme Disease: Runners Beware

07-Jun-17

Last updated: 07-Jun-17

By Alice Morrison

We have been getting reports of runners who have been affected by Lyme Disease, both in the United States and across the water in Europe, and so wanted to keep you informed about the symptoms and causes of this disease.

What is Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection which is transmitted by Ixodes ticks, which are also known as deer ticks or black-legged ticks. These little arachnids are typically found in wooded and grassy areas. They can attach themselves easily to your bare legs and arms when you are running through infested areas.

Most people get Lyme from the bite of the nymphal, or immature, form of the tick. These are tiny - about the size of a pin head. Because they are so small and their bite is painless, many people do not even know they have been bitten.

Once the tick has attached, it can feed for several days – which is a gruesome thought. The longer it stays attached, the more likely it is that it will pass on the Lyme and other pathogens into your body.

It's estimated there are 2,000 to 3,000 new cases of Lyme disease in England and Wales each year. About 15% of cases are caused while people are abroad.

However, it's thought only a small proportion of ticks carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, so being bitten doesn't mean you'll definitely be infected, but it's important to be aware of the dangers.

What are the symptoms of Lyme Disease

Many people with early-stage Lyme disease develop a circular rash where the tick has bitten, up to 30 days after the bite. It looks a bit like a bull's-eye on a dart board. The affected area of skin will be red and the edges may be slightly raised.

The size of the rash can vary significantly and it may get bigger over several days or weeks. Typically, it's around 15cm (6 inches) across, but it can be much larger or smaller than this. Some people may develop several rashes all over their body.

Be warned, around 30 % of people with Lyme disease won't develop a rash at all. Some people with Lyme disease also experience flu-like symptoms in the early stages, such as tiredness (fatigue), muscle pain, joint pain, headaches, a high temperature (fever), chills and neck stiffness. 

More serious symptoms may develop several weeks, months or even years later if Lyme disease is left untreated or is not treated early on. These can include:

  • pain and swelling in the joints 
  • numbness and pain in your limbs, paralysis of your facial muscles, memory and concentration problems
  • heart problems, even possibly heart failure 
  • inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord causing headaches and light sensitivity

Some of these problems will get better slowly with treatment. However, some people with Lyme disease go on to develop long-term symptoms similar to those of fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. This is known as post-infectious Lyme disease. It's not clear exactly why this happens, but it's believed to be related to over-activity of your immune system.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of Lyme mirror many other conditions and so the disease may go undiagnosed. In fact, it is called “The Great Imitator,” because its symptoms mimic many other diseases. It is a broad-reaching disease which can affect the brain and nervous system, muscles and joints, and the heart.

Some of the misdiagnoses include: chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and various psychiatric illnesses, including depression. Misdiagnosis with these other diseases can, of course, delay the correct diagnosis and treatment as the infection spreads freely.

This is a very useful website where you can check your symptoms.

Treatment

If you think you may have Lyme disease, you must go to see your doctor. They will carry out blood tests (two in the UK) and then, if you have been infected, you will be given a course of antibiotics.

Prevention is better than a cure

It goes without saying that prevention is much better than a cure for any type of disease. NHS UK issues the following guidelines:

There is currently no vaccine available to prevent Lyme disease. The best way to prevent the condition is to be aware of the risks when you visit areas where ticks are found and to take sensible precautions.

You can reduce the risk of infection by:

  • keeping to footpaths and avoiding long grass when out walking
  • wearing appropriate clothing in tick-infested areas (a long-sleeved shirt and trousers tucked into your socks)
  • wearing light-coloured fabrics that may help you spot a tick on your clothes
  • using insect repellent on exposed skin
  • inspecting your skin for ticks, particularly at the end of the day, including your head, neck and skin folds (armpits, groin, and waistband) – remove any ticks you find promptly
  • checking your children's head and neck areas, including their scalp
  • making sure ticks are not brought home on your clothes
  • checking that pets do not bring ticks into your home in their fur

So, take sensible precautions and don’t ignore any symptoms that linger on longer than they should. Always go and see your doctor. Safe running out there!

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