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The rise in Lyme disease cases in the UK is alarming, with milder winters and wetter months creating ideal conditions for tick populations to thrive. In 2023 alone, England saw over 880 acute cases between the months of April and September, compared to around 630 cases in 2022. Worldwide studies indicate that rates of Lyme disease have doubled between 2010 and 2021, compared to the rates between 2001 and 2010. With about 15 percent of the global population having at some point been infected with Lyme disease, it is by far the most prevalent tick-borne illness on the planet. 

As climate changes continue to introduce more humid conditions and milder winters into the UK, they extend the period during which Lyme disease-carrying ticks are active, significantly increasing the risk of infection. 

Here’s what you need to know about Lyme disease, and the impact that climate change could have on how we will be dealing with the condition in the near future.

Introduction to Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, transmitted through the bite of infected black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks. As the name implies, these ticks are commonly found on white-tailed deer, but they can also be carried by rodents and birds. The ticks and the animals they rely on for food and transportation thrive in wooded and grassy areas and are rarer in urban areas. 

The modern discovery of Lyme disease is owed to growth in deer populations over the last hundred years. Around the 19th century, heavy deforestation and hunting decimated deer populations in North America, where Lyme disease was first originally identified. Reforestation efforts around the 20th century led to an explosion in deer populations around the continent, resulting in an increase in bacterial infections around the 1970s. Lyme disease was then first identified as a tick-borne bacterial infection in the eponymous Lyme, Connecticut. 

Since then, Lyme disease has since become the most common vector-borne disease in temperate regions of North America and Europe.

 

uk climate change - Lyme Mexico

 

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Lyme Disease

Symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle and joint aches. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system. In some cases, symptoms can become chronic. A rash is also common – and in about one in five cases, the rash develops a characteristic bullseye pattern, with a circular red area and a larger red ring around it. 

Diagnosis of Lyme disease is based on the presence of characteristic rashes, as well as symptoms of arthritis (general joint pain) and facial palsy (partial paralysis). In the absence of any bullseye rashes (erythema migrans), doctors may order a test which looks for the presence of antibodies in a person’s blood. Most people don’t remember being bitten by a tick, and ticks generally fall off on their own when they’ve had their fill, meaning a tick bite can often go unnoticed. 

Lyme disease is usually suspected in areas where case numbers are high, although that has changed with how the timetables and locations of common Lyme disease hotspots have changed in recent years. 

Antibodies by themselves do not prove an infection – some people have Lyme disease antibodies without an active Lyme disease infection – and it can take weeks after the initial infection for the body to produce enough antibodies to show up in most tests. But a positive test result coupled with other characteristic signs can increase the probability of a Lyme disease diagnosis, and the success of a treatment course. 

How is Lyme Disease Treated?

First-line treatment for Lyme disease typically involves antibiotics, which are most effective when administered early. About 10-20 percent of people who are infected with Lyme disease experience post-treatment Lyme disease, or PTLDS. Symptoms can include chronic pain, fatigue, and cognitive impairment. 

For long-term cases of Lyme disease, symptom management is important – an individualized, integrative care approach, as offered by us at the Lyme Mexico Clinic, can help people achieve lasting remission. 

Although vaccines for Lyme disease existed, they have been phased out in recent decades. Some debate bringing them back, due to the rate at which Lyme disease has been spreading throughout the world, and due to climate change. 

The Impact of Climate Change on Lyme Disease Spread

The ticks that carry Lyme disease rely on two things to thrive: high humidity (about 82 percent for tick nymphs that often carry Lyme disease) and temperatures at or over about 7.2 degrees Celsius. Furthermore, they prefer thickets, woodlands, brushes, leaf piles, and the presence of animals such as deer. 

Climate change produces milder winters, longer summers and springs, and melts ice and snow at a much more rapid rate. Hotter temperatures are also evaporating the world’s oceans at a faster rate, leading to much greater rainfall and much higher levels of humidity in normally temperate climates, such as Central and Northern Europe. Lyme disease-carrying ticks have found their way as far East as Japan and as far North as Norway, and rates are rising throughout North America and Europe at an alarming rate. 

In the US, climate change has both given and taken away from the blacklegged tick. Places like California have become less hospitable due to increases in wildfires and drought periods. Meanwhile, northern portions of the country are seeing greater numbers of Lyme disease cases. In the UK, people are coming in with symptoms of a Lyme disease infection as early as May, and as late as December. 

Preventive Measures Against Lyme Disease

There are two simple ways to reduce your risk of contracting Lyme disease when spending time in or around the woods: avoiding tick bites and making ticks easier to spot. 

When spending time in wooded or grassy areas, long sleeves, long pants tucked into socks, and light-colored clothing to make spotting ticks easier. Remove ticks as soon as you get back from your hike or outdoor trip. 

Using insect repellents containing “deet” on skin and clothing can also help deter ticks. Once you get home, look for ticks on yourself, your partner, your children, and your pets. Be sure to thoroughly check the armpits, groin, scalp, and between your toes and fingers. On pets, check in and around the ears, snout, between paws, and around the belly. 

Showering soon after being outdoors can help wash away unattached ticks. Additionally, keeping yards tick-free by mowing lawns regularly, removing leaf litter, and creating barriers between lawns and wooded areas can reduce tick habitats. Next to heavily wooded areas and riverside brushes, ticks are most common in unmaintained garden areas, larger houseplants, and lawns. 

For added protection, consider treating pets with tick control products and using professional pest control services to treat your yard from time to time. 

Conclusion

The rise in Lyme disease cases in the UK is alarming, with milder winters and wetter months creating ideal conditions for tick populations to thrive. In 2023 alone, England saw a nearly 40 percent increase in Lyme disease cases over 2022. 

As climate change continues to introduce more humid conditions and milder winters into the UK, the period during which Lyme disease-carrying ticks are active is extended, significantly increasing the risk of infection. It’s important to protect yourself and your loved ones, and recognize the signs of Lyme disease as early as possible.

Consider traveling outside of the country to meet with a top clinic, Lyme Mexico. The Lyme Mexico Clinic can meet all your diagnostic and treatment needs. Learn more about Lyme disease or schedule an evaluation. We can discuss your symptoms and the alternative treatment options that work.

 

uk climate change - Lyme Mexico

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