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(The Gear Loop) - Everyone seems to have heard about lyme disease, but no one seems to know anyone who has had it. It's a disease that not a lot of people know anything about, except that you get it from tick bites.

That was the position that I was in when I contracted lyme disease in August 2021. So here's a first-hand experience of having lyme disease, where I got it, what to look out for, and what I'll be changing when I head into the wilds in the future.

How did I get lyme disease?

That's simple, it was a bite from an infected tick, but you already know that - that's where lyme disease comes from.

I was staying in a remote cabin on the shore of Loch Awe in Scotland and exploring the lochs, hills and forests. I was running and walking every day, taking in the amazing scenery, enjoying the sun and dodging the rain showers that Scotland loves to throw down.

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One evening I noticed something just behind my right knee. It didn't look like a tick: I've seen plenty of sheep ticks, engorged after feeding like a small fleshy bean, but this was a deer tick, small, dark - it looked like a nigella or black onion seed, it really was very small.

I didn't think much of it, I picked at it and pulled it off, still not knowing it was a tick, until I saw another (or the same one) walking over my dog's fur.

That was that, I didn't think much about it for another week.

What is lyme disease?

Lyme disease is an infection usually caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. This is transferred to humans through a tick bite, and the tick needs to be attached long enough to transfer the bacteria to the human.

The CDC says that the tick normally needs to be attached for 36-48 hours for this to happen, something that my local vet also told me when I asked what to look out for in my dog (fever, loss of appetite, lethargy).

Once the bacteria is in your body, it multiplies, as bacteria does, causing the infection we know as lyme disease.

It's important to know that not all ticks are infected - and if the tick isn't infected, it can't infect you.

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How did I know I actually had lyme disease?

Having identified that I had been bitten by a tick, my wife joked that I needed to look out for a rash around the bite. Looking back, it was probably the worst joke she had ever made, but also probably the most useful thing she had ever said.

It was a week later that a rash appeared around the site of the bite on the back of my knee. I'd been running again (this time down in Somerset) and thought I'd been stung by nettles. The coincidence was a little too striking - it felt like I'd been stung all around the site of the original bite.

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It was now that a red ring was growing around the tick bite, which is the classic first sign of lyme disease. The NHS reports that it's not usually itchy, but mine was - so itchy I was reaching for the antihistamine and hoping that it was a sting rather than lyme disease.

On talking to my doctor, however, they confirmed that (a) I'd been in the right place to contract it and (b) it looked like a lyme disease rash. So it was straight onto treatment.

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Lyme disease treatment

As lyme disease is caused by a bacterial infection, it is treated with antibiotics. I was prescribed a 3-week course of doxycycline to take care of the infection.

Of course, testing for lyme disease is more difficult. Currently, the test is an antibody blood test, so a couple of weeks later I was tested for the antibodies to the infection - this, finally, demonstrated that I did have lyme disease when it came back positive. (I'd actually finished the antibiotics by the time I'd got the results back.)

In most cases, early treatment with antibiotics deals with the infection and that's it - but a further blood test was conducted another 6 weeks later to check that the antibodies were in decline, which they were. For me, that was essentially the end of that.

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Without treatment, the bacteria can spread and infect many areas of your body, including major organs, leading to wider complications. Beyond the rash, symptoms of lyme disease can be flu-like, including fever, fatigue and muscle aches and these can appear months after the original tick bite.

Early treatment may mean you have a rash, the antibiotics and that's it - but the important thing is to identify lyme disease as a possibility, so your doctor knows what they are treating.

Advice for runners, walkers and explorers

The biggest indicator that you might have been exposed is by spotting the tick in the first place and knowing if you're in an area where lyme disease is commonplace.

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If you've been out in the wilderness, if you're camping, running or walking, it's good to get in the habit of checking yourself, or getting a partner to check you to help spot those ticks.

Beyond that, of course, covering up makes a lot of sense. Walking in long grass, in shorts, was nice in the summer, but covering my legs would have most likely prevented that tick bite in the first place.

That's what I've really learnt from this: if I'm heading off the beaten track in an area that I know lyme disease is prevalent, I'll be sure to cover my legs in future.


Writing by Chris Hall.