Field Notes: A cautionary tale

Our John Muir Award Scotland education manager, Rebecca Logsdon, says it all starts with three four-letter words: tick... bite... Lyme...

Wild swimming in highland perthshire   rebecca detail

It's great to be outdoors and it has many benefits, but it's important to recognise there can be risks - of which Lyme disease is one. I wanted to share some information about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment – as it’s not always straightforward – but, most importantly, how to avoid tick bites in the first place*. 

Symptoms

Despite knowing about the dangers of ticks and doing my best to avoid them, I picked up a tick from my local woodland last summer and contracted Lyme disease. I'm sharing my story as a reminder for everyone to be tick aware.

I was caught out as I didn’t actually see a tick and it must have fallen off unnoticed. Although I had a classic red rash around the bite (red bull’s eye rings only appear in something like 50 per cent of Lyme cases) the alarm bells didn’t ring straight away because I hadn’t seen a tick there.

I thought it was another insect bite that had got infected and was incredibly itchy for weeks. It wasn’t until a colleague at work described the constant head pain, muscular aches and fatigue that she had with Lyme that I recognised my symptoms.

I had been telling myself for months to pull it together and keep on going, as a working mum I thought I was just having an extremely tired phase. 

Diagnosis

Fortunately my doctor was well informed about Lyme and took immediate action by sending my blood samples for testing, which came back positive. I know that some people have to fight for this quick response from health professionals because not all GPs have good awareness.

Early treatment is critical. By the time I had the test, the Lyme had been in my system untreated for 2-3 months which – although not long by some people’s standards - was enough for the bacterial infection to really get into my system. There are cases of people being diagnosed with Lyme disease 10 years after the initial infection, leading to all manner of long term health complications.

What’s it really like

Lyme disease is debilitating. At its worse your brain can’t function and it feels like it’s trying to explode. You wake up and feel like you have climbed a Munro every day and you don’t have the energy to do very much. It’s like constantly walking with stones in your boots. There are somethings you just can’t even contemplate doing. Even some of the easy pleasures seem to be out of reach. At my worst I raked leaves for 10 minutes and then had to lie down on the sofa for hours to recover.

You have to constantly cut back on things that drain your energy, even the fun things like spending time with people, as you need to ration your energy levels. It’s hard to keep functioning in your work, especially the more physical aspects. The support and understanding of your colleagues and managers is critical. You have the guilt of not being able to pull your own weight and the frustration and sadness that you can’t do what you used to be able to do. However, throughout all of this there is the sound knowledge that it’s not going to be forever and that you will recover.

Treatment

The initial treatment for Lyme disease is a three week course of antibiotics, which works for many. Unfortunately, my symptoms came back again with vengeance within a few weeks.

I had another three weeks of antibiotics and also started to look at more holistic treatment. There’s lots of information out there about the importance of supporting the immune system to help your body treat Lyme.

So far I have been on this journey of recovery for six months. What has helped is the support and advice from other people that have had Lyme. My husband has been an amazing support, recognising that I can’t do lots of things at home and researching all about Lyme treatment.

I’ve turned into a healthy version of myself taking all manner of supplements, eating healthily, limiting sugar and alcohol. I sleep and rest lots. Hot baths, saunas, hot water bottles help with the constant muscle ache as do massage, gentle yoga and acupuncture. 

One of the difficult things is the confusion of not knowing what your path of recovery is going to be. It’s taken me a while to realise that there isn’t a quick fix pill and that this is something longer term to manage. It is very likely that the Lyme is now out of my system and I now have ‘post Lyme chronic fatigue’. Health care professionals say that the Lyme symptoms can carry on for 12-18 months. Coming to the realisation that it’s something that needs longer term management and finding out ways to relieve the symptoms really helps.   

I’m a far cry from the active outdoor person I used to be but I’m taking things back on slowly and seeing how I manage. In a strange way it has also given me some gifts of slowing down and really looking at what matters in my life. It also makes me super careful about avoiding ticks – and I hope my story will encourage others to be more tick aware. 

Avoidance

You could be exposed to ticks whenever you are enjoying the outdoors: from gardens to local parks, to woodland and moorland. Not all tick bites lead to Lyme disease, but all ticks should be removed.

You can minimise the chance of tick bites by;

  • walking on clearly defined paths
  • using insect repellent
  • performing regular tick checks
  • wearing light coloured clothing - it makes them easier to spot
  • avoiding shorts, bare legs, arms, sandals and wearing short trainer socks
  • tucking your clothing in
  • avoiding sitting in grass – choose rocks or other naturally elevated positions.

Some of these aren't always appropriate or easy. It can be uncomfortable to be fully covered up on a very warm day. You can’t completely avoid tick bites, but checking for ticks is always worthwhile!

For more information about Lyme disease check these resources

*Please note, this article is intended for information only - always seek advice from a medical professional.

Photo of Highland Perthshire by Rebecca Logsdon