Lyme Disease – What it is, where it is, causes, and prevention

Classic bullseye rash aka EM rash or Erythema Migrans
May is Lyme Disease awareness month. Lyme disease is a subject that is very familiar to me as I contracted it back in 1995 and was misdiagnosed for 16 years. If my writing this blog can increase awareness and prevent anyone else from going through a fraction of what I have then it will be well worth it. I’ll try and keep it as succinct as possible for those that would just like a general understanding of the subject. For those of you that are interested, or know someone who is ill, I have provided a couple of useful and comprehensive websites to view at the end of the post.

What is Lyme?

Lyme disease is the name given to the illness caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, and is generally transmitted by ticks. It lives in the blood, so when a tick bites an infected mammal (host), be they deer, sheep or human, the tick carries the bacterium in their stomach and saliva. When that tick then bites another mammal they pass the infection on to the new host.

It is called Lyme disease (not Lyme’s or Lymes) after a town called Lyme in Connecticut, USA, where the first ‘outbreak’ was observed back in 1975. It has been around much longer than that though as 5,300 year old Ice man Otzi “appears to have the oldest known case of Lyme disease” [source:]


The symptoms of early Lyme infection are:

  • Flu like symptoms
  • Stiff Neck
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Sound and Light sensitivity
  • Abnormal skin sensations (tingling, numbness, itching)
  • Bullseye rash (click image for variations of this rash)
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Symptoms of late stage Lyme are numerous and varied and a comprehensive list can be found here (although the website is not very user friendly). Looking at the symptom list, you can see why Lyme disease is so regularly misdiagnosed. Blood tests are inherently unreliable, with statistics stating false negatives in up to 66% of results!

Where is Lyme in the UK?

There is ongoing research to try and map out the incidence of Lyme across the UK. The Big Tick Project is “the largest ever veterinary study of ticks and tick-borne disease in the UK” It is tracking the incidence of Lyme across the country and has created a risk map by county.
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Life stages of a tick

Ticks have 4 life stages: egg, larvae, nymph and adult. The larvae are minute, not much bigger than a full stop. Nymphs are slightly larger and around the size of a pin head or a poppy seed. Adults, depending on species, are around 2-3 mm. So, you see, being bitten by a tick is not always ious due to their size – and you are most likely to be bitten by a nymph.

Ticks only feed once during each life cycle – they attach themselves to their host, feed for 2-3 days and then drop off to develop into the next stage. A full life cycle takes around 2 years.

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By now I’m sure you’re itching away, like me, at the thought of these tiny arachnids climbing on you, let alone biting you. So, what can do you do to prevent being dinner?

You are most likely to find ticks in woods, long grass, meadows and parklands.

One preventative measure is to use a Deet based insect repellent sprayed on your clothes and any bare skin.

Another, although unfashionable, is to tuck light coloured trousers into long socks. The reason for this is two-fold:

1 – It stops them climbing up your trouser legs!

2 – The light coloured fabric will let you see if you have a dark tick on you much easier than dark fabric.

The last way is to check yourself, and others, after a day out. Adults are more likely to be bitten on the legs, but make sure you get someone to check your back. Children are most likely to be bitten above the waist. It is especially important to check a child’s hairline at the end of a day out as they are common, but less obvious place for them to be bitten.

The do's and don'ts of tick removal


Ok, let’s get the ‘don’ts’ out the way. I’ve put this first as removing a tick the wrong way will significantly increase the risk of infection if you have an infected tick on you! Remember how at the start I said ticks carry the bacterium in their stomach and saliva? The last thing you want to do when removing a tick is to stress it – ticks regurgitate the contents of their stomach when stressed and you don’t want them doing that while they are still attached to or your dog, yuck!

Firstly, please do not touch a tick with your bare hands. Some would say this is a little over the top, but it has been shown that ticks can carry Lyme On them as well as in them. Having a minute cut on your hand whilst handling an infected tick can be a method of infection. If you’ve been through what I have then you just wouldn’t risk it. So please, no bare fingers touching ticks!


Normal tweezers, like those pictured, are generally a no-no. When a tick feeds it buries its head into the top layer of skin, this means that only the body is visible. When you use tweezers, especially on larger ticks, all you are doing is squeezing the body – which as you can imagine is a bad idea.

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Alcohol, Vaseline or putting anything on/over the tick

Trying to burn, suffocate or otherwise forcefully remove the tick by making it uncomfortable only increases the risk of regurgitation. Yes, it may well remove itself, but what did it leave in your blood stream as it was hurt/stressed?


I have seen many people online removing ticks by grabbing the body with tweezers (we’ve already decided this is a bad idea) and spinning the tick to remove the head. Making the tick ‘dizzy’ will not help you release the tick, if anything it’s likely to leave the head still in the skin (this can be a disaster, especially with an infected tick). So please, no making the tick dizzy like it’s on a teacup ride at the fairground! Those things make Me feel sick…let alone a tick.


Now we’ve got the ‘don’t’s’ out the way, here’s what you should do to safely remove a tick from you or your dog.

There are specialist tools on the market to remove ticks, and safe methods of removal. The tool I carry with me (and have duplicates in my car and the dog’s first aid kit) is the O’Tom tick twister. This nifty little tool comes in 2 sizes, one for the smaller ticks and one for the big, fat monster ticks (anyone else getting goose bumps or is it just me?).

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Goose bumps aside, these tools are made to fit snugly against the skin, between the skin and the body of the tick. Once the tool is in place slowly turn the tool a ¼ turn and gently, but firmly give a steady pull. There will be resistance as the tick tries to hold on, but do not let go, once you have started to pull just keep the pressure on until the little bleeder pops out. Hopefully if you have done it correctly you should have a wriggly little tick in your removal tool. Again, please do not handle it with bare fingers. O’Tom tick twister actually suggests twisting the tool when it’s gripping the tick. Whether you chose to use this method is entirely up to you.

However you remove the tick, if in the next few days you start to feel excessively tired, like you have the flu, then get to your Dr’s asap and make sure you are put on a strong dose of Tetracycline antibiotics. The sooner an infection is treated, the more likely you are to be cured, with no long lasting effects.

As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a subject very close to my heart. Had my infection been recognised at the onset, things would be very different for me now.

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