Am Bratach No. 236
June 2011
fiona@bratach.co.uk

 

Ticks can make you seriously ill
Fiona Burnett counts the cost of being struck down by Lyme Disease

With the recent spell of good weather many of us are grabbing the chance of enjoying the freedom that our great outdoors offers us. But before you set off on your great adventure, be aware of unwanted hitchhikers roaming our countryside that might just leave you seriously ill if you allow them to tag along for too long.

Ticks are not fliers nor jumpers but crawlers. They are blood sucking, spider-like insects that hang out on blades of grass, bracken, low overhanging tree branches and undergrowth, waiting for their next meal to come along. Anything from a small mouse to a deer will do and if that’s not on the menu then we humans make a tasty bite.

Unlike the dreaded midge, a tick has anaesthetic properties in its saliva; so when it bites us we aren’t aware of it. There are over twenty different types of tick in Britain and most ticks do not cause health problems but there are infected ones which do. They are the carriers of borreliosis, a bacterium which causes Lyme Disease, a viral disease transmitted to humans by ticks which affects the joints, heart and nervous system.

A tell-tale sign if you’ve been bitten by an infected tick is the “bulls-eye” rash, a roundish mark with a distinct centre. However, this does not appear on everyone who has been infected and that’s when this disease becomes extremely difficult to diagnose. Disease transmission can occur in less than twenty-four hours after an infected tick attaches itself to your body.

I myself have recently been treated for Chronic Lyme Disease (CLD). My diagnosis was made, following blood tests, an MRI scan and lumbar puncture, at Raigmore hospital by Dr Grant Franklin, a consultant acute physician specialising in Lyme Disease.

Having suffered odd unexplained symptoms over the years and total “melt-down” the day before I was admitted to Raigmore, the diagnosis of CLD was, in some ways, a huge relief as often not knowing what is wrong can eat away at you and lead you to imagine all kinds of scenarios.

When “meltdown” came my body felt as though it was shutting down. Returning to my car after walking my dog, both legs lost power and I had difficulty walking. The right side of my mouth became numb and when I did make it to my car driving home was scary as my arms and legs became tingly. I couldn’t do anything quickly and I was suddenly nauseous with a thumping headache. At first I thought I was having a stroke, then I thought of a brain haemorrhage. My twin brother died suddenly in his sleep from a brain haemorrhage, aged thirty.

Contrary to what some doctors believe, I strongly believe I’ve had this illness for many years now. And according to Dr Franklin, it’s “quite possible” this is the case. I could not remember being bitten by a tick but many years ago while living in the Borders I do remember waking up one morning to find a large red mark on my left leg which, looking back, could have been the familiar “bullseye” rash. It did not give cause for concern to my doctor at the time.

I had heard of Lyme Disease then. A young child from the area whom I knew, Polly Cook, had been taken to hospital after developing walking problems, sore muscles and chronic fatigue and there was talk that she had been bitten by a deer tick.

For years now I’ve had a range of varying symptoms: general fatigue, depression, painful soles of both feet, which made getting out of bed very difficult, and walking too, for the first half hour on rising. I’ve had problems breathing, an extremely sore back, painful joints, a sore and sensitive side (imagine falling into a bunch of nettles and you have the needling pain) and difficulty sleeping at night, although during the day I could happily have fallen asleep standing up!

The worst symptom is “brain fog” when I can’t think straight, when doing a simple task takes me ages because I can’t remember what I’m meant to be doing or how to complete the task. My concentration can be non-existent and any extra chores are stressful. I sometimes can’t talk coherently or finish a sentence. And when I think back I quite often tripped up or bumped into walls, misjudging distances. Even now, when I’m tired, my symptoms appear worse.

Since my month of intravenous antibiotic treatment and a fortnight on oral tablets my walking is almost back to normal and I’ve recovered full sight in my right eye.
I am under no illusions here. I’ve had this for a long time and it will take some time before I feel totally well again. Having heard of other sufferers throughout the area, nearly all are still suffering from odd symptoms years after being diagnosed.

Around 3,000 people are diagnosed every year but in theory the number is far higher as there are many who have been misdiagnosed or who merely soldier on not realising that they have the disease since the first stages of this illness can present itself much like a bad bout of flu.

Considering the Highlands is a high risk area for ticks, there is very little information in our communities about Lyme Disease. I have yet to find anything local which refers to how you might go about extracting a tick from your body, certainly nothing in my local health centre or in the surrounding ones. And while there are plenty leaflets out there telling you how to reduce your cholestrol, eat healthier food, give up smoking, this is one area which is not covered. The great outdoors is a wonderful playground for all of us, but there should be a warning against these tiny unwanted hitchhikers which can cause dramatic suffering to their victims for many years to come.

Paul Castle, the Bettyhill-based countryside ranger, said: “As rangers we learn about Lyme Disease during our 3-yearly mountain first-aid refreshers and we are all aware of the terrible nature of this disease. We give safety talks at the beginning of events and checking for ticks is mentioned as a priority. We carry the excellent plastic tick removers in our first aid kits which are great for safely removing attached ticks from humans and pets.”

More needs to be done to raise awareness of this preventable disease. We all need to be vigilant, thoroughly checking ourselves after a walk in the countryside. Our pets, too, can also get ill from this disease. And don’t think that just because you haven’t been out lately you won’t come into contact with ticks. Others can carry them into your home without realising — your pets, even your friends, who come to visit!

Without wishing to scare people, local communities could do much to raise awareness. Doctors’ surgeries, schools, nurseries, playgroups, shops, camp-sites, hotels, forest walks, parks are just some of the places where posters should be displayed, informing the public what to look out for and how to safely remove ticks.

Borreliosos and Associated Diseases Awareness UK is a charity run by volunteers and offers free downloads of Lyme Disease leaflets from its website, www.bada-UK.org, giving tips on how to protect yourself from these unwanted intruders. The cost of copying these leaflets is minimal considering how much it would cost the NHS to treat someone with CLD. The “pharmacy” of medication I brought home from Raigmore must have cost a pretty penny, not to mention the visits I had from district nurses who attended to me when I was unable to drive to my local surgery.

I wouldn’t wish this illness on anyone. Make sure you stay healthy this summer. Be alert, be aware, be tick-free.

# It is reported that a fifty-seven-year-old Forestry Commission worker from Duror in Argyll, who became seriously ill after contracting Lyme Disease from an infected tick bite, is suing his employers for £80,000 damages. The commission is contesting the action at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.


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