What is Lyme disease and what are the symptoms of the rapidly increasing illness?

  • Video report by ITV News Health Correspondent Emily Morgan

The number of Britons diagnosed with Lyme disease could be three times higher than previously thought, new research has found.

Up to 8,000 people a year in the UK may suffer from the disease, which can lead to severe joint and nerve problems.

Analysis of medical records found the number of cases has "increased rapidly", finding a 10-fold increase in the number of reported cases which have soared from 60 to 595 in an 11 year period starting in 2001.

Researchers found 4,083 cases of Lyme disease were detected among 4,025 patients, 56 of whom appeared to have been infected more than once.

Of these, 1,702 (41.7%) had "clinically diagnosed" Lyme disease, 1,913 (46.9%) had “treated suspected” Lyme disease, and 468 (11.5%) had "treated possible" Lyme disease.

The current official estimate for the UK is around 2,000–3,000 new cases of Lyme disease annually based on laboratory data in England and Wales and centralised reporting in Scotland.

If the numbers continued to increase post-2012 at a similar rate, researchers believe the UK could see an excess of 8,000 cases this year.

  • How do you get Lyme disease and what are the symptoms?

Lyme disease can be caught after being bit by a tic. Credit: NHS

The infection is spread to humans if they are bitten by an infected tick.

The tiny spider-like creatures are found in woodland and heath areas throughout the UK and in parts of Europe and North America.

Not everyone who gets bitten by a tick will be infected with Lyme disease as only a small proportion carry the bacteria which causes the condition.

A tick bite can only cause Lyme disease in humans if the tick has already bitten an infected animal.

Many people with early symptoms of Lyme disease develop a circular red skin rash around a tick bite, often described as looking like a bullseye on a dart board.

The rash can appear up to three months after being bitten and usually lasts for several weeks.

Most rashes appear within the first four weeks after being bitten.

The NHS says the best way to remove a tick is by using specialist tools or tweezers. Credit: NHS

These bites differ from those given by mosquitoes, which will appear as small red lumps on your skin.

Not everyone will get a rash from a tick bite, and some will experience flu-like symptoms in the early stages, such as a high temperature, or feeling hot and shivery, as well as headaches, muscle and joint pain, tiredness and loss of energy.

The NHS advises most tick bites are harmless, but to remove ticks using specialist tools available at pharmacies or a pair of tweezers. It says to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible, so parts of it cannot remain in the body.

  • How is it diagnosed and treated, and what are the complications if it's not treated?

People are advised to seek medical treatment if they believe they are at risk. Credit: PA

Anyone who thinks they may have Lyme disease should visit their GP, who can carry out two types of blood test to help confirm or rule it out.

If confirmed, patients will be prescribed a three-week course of antibiotics.

Most people will get better, although this can take several months.

A small proportion will continue to have symptoms, such as tiredness, aches and loss of energy, which can last for several years.

Due to its common and unspecific symptoms, Lyme disease may be difficult to diagnose, but if left untreated it can lead to conditions such as meningitis or heart failure.

  • Where in the UK is Lyme disease most prevalent?

Lyme disease hot spots include the New Forest and the Scottish Highlands. Credit: PA

The South of England and the Scottish Highlands have been earmarked as high risk areas for Lyme disease.

Exmoor, the New Forest and other rural areas of Hampshire, the South Downs, parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire, parts of Surrey and West Sussex, Thetford Forest in Norfolk, the Lake District, the North York Moors and the Scottish Highlands are all known to have a particularly high population of ticks.

Covering up bare skin while walking outdoors, using insect repellent, staying on paths whenever possible, and wearing light-coloured clothing so ticks are easier to spot and brush off are all ways to reduce the risk of being bitten.