Grandmas - and other old wives - have a lot to answer for. How many of us grew up believing that if we went out with wet hair we'd catch a cold (there's no link - honestly!), or that butter was the best thing to put on a burn (only if you want to fry your skin!). In the last few weeks, I've been asked to do several media interviews on the health implications of the coldest March on record, and they always seem to include a question about whether viruses which cause coughs and colds are 'killed off' by this cold weather. Apparently this thinking also extends to the ticks that can cause Lyme disease.
Sadly, the answer is no. I'm sure if we think hard enough we can find a silver lining or two to the unseasonably cold and grey clouds glowering over us on a daily basis, but being safe to gambol around in deer-inhabited woodland isn't one of them. Lyme disease comes from bacteria which infect ticks. These pinhead-sized creatures in turn live on mammals - including mice and deer - but are partial to a human meal as well. The reason tick bites are most common in late spring and summer isn't because the ticks are hibernating the rest of the year, but because humans are less likely to be wading in the undergrowth where they live. After all, people have been infected with Lyme disease in the northern forests of Russia - and while Britain may feel cold, it's hardly Siberia!
So anyone hoping to cast off winter gloom with a camping holiday - or even a picnic - at the first sign of spring would be well advised to take precautions. Even though the majority of ticks are not infected with Lyme disease, there were over 1,000 cases in the UK in 2008 and the true figure may be much higher. Ticks often live in long grass and ankle-height vegetation, waiting to hitch a ride on an unsuspecting 'meal'. They don't cause any pain as they attach themselves, so you won't notice they're there unless you check. Prevention is (in this case as so many others) definitely better than cure, so stick to paths away from long grass; wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers tucked into your socks (cover them with boots if the socks-inside-trouser look is just too uncool for you!); and check for ticks when you get home. If you do find one, remove it immediately using only the patient.info approved technique. Although antibiotics aren't routinely recommended in the UK after tick bites, do see your doctor immediately if you get a circular rash on your skin, spreading out from a central point, especially if you think you may have been bitten by a tick. Likewise, see your doctor if you find a tick more than a day or so after you've left a woodland area, since infection is most likely if the tick has been attached for at least 24 hours.
I certainly wouldn't want to put anyone off a walk in the countryside in the spring sunshine - it has to be one of life's great joys, as well as being good for your health. But just remember - shorts may look hot on the catwalk, but in the woods they are SO last century!
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