Infection number one: a tricky rash
I meant to return to Scotland in September, but… that rash in my groin – the one I thought was a sweat rash because I noticed it after a soggy bicycle ride – well… it didn’t go away.
It was easy to ignore my new rash, because it didn’t itch and it wasn’t sore, and I’m not the sort of person who spends a lot of time peering at my own groin! The rash wasn’t even circular, but was a weird rectangle in shape, and had quite a clear edge. In fact it looked like the kind of rash you might get if your skin was irritated under a piece of Elastoplast (Band Aid).
Two weeks after my return home to Manchester, with the rash no better, it suddenly occurred to me that it might be Lyme Disease.
Lyme Disease is a nasty disease with serious, long-term consequences. It is caused by the Borrelia bacterium, and is carried by infected ticks. It is common in areas with an extensive deer population – places like Scotland.
Now, I knew with Lyme Disease you could develop a circular rash with a pale ring around the centre – a rash which typically looks like a bull’s eye on a dartboard.
My rash wasn’t circular and didn’t have a bulls eye. In fact, it looked very much like this…
… photo, that I found on a page about Lyme Disease.
And so, four weeks after the rash first appeared, the penny finally dropped. With a very heavy clang. I had Lyme Disease!
I knew there was no reliable blood test for Lymes and it is notoriously hard to get a definite diagnosis made. My heart sank. Would I have to undergo numerous blood tests, while doctors ummed and ahhed about the diagnosis? I was certain that I knew what it was, but could I convince anyone else? If left untreated, Lyme Disease can have very, very serious consequences, and I had already wasted some weeks since the infection first began.
I quickly did what everyone else does when faced with a health crisis. I consulted Google.
To my surprise, NICE had drawn up a serious of guidelines for Lyme Disease and an easy visual guide to making the diagnois: NICE guidelines, (NICE is the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, part of the NHS). And I discovered the rash alone is enough to make the diagnosis. What a relief. It was so easy to treat too. All I needed was a three week course of antibiotics.
The waiting time to see my new GP (someone I had never met) was two weeks. Two weeks!! Luckily, I am a retired doctor, and have plenty of medical contacts. It was easy to find a colleague willing to listen to my story and issue a private prescription for the antibiotics I needed.
Up until then, I had no symptoms apart from the rash, and I felt very well. Ironically, the antibiotics made me feel quite ill! Nausea was the main problem, which got worse as the three weeks of treatment progressed. The rash, on the other hand, gradually got better.
These particular antibiotics (doxycycline) could give you another type of rash if you exposed your skin to sunlight, and I’d had previous problems with sun-rashes while on a similar antibiotic. So I spent most of September 2019 sheltering inside, and I cancelled my next trip to Scotland.
Over a year has passed since then. In retrospect, I was lucky, as 1/3 of victims don’t develop a rash. I never saw the tick that bit me and, without the rash, I wouldn’t have had a clue I was infected. If untreated, Lyme Disease can cause serious medical conditions, many of which don’t manifest themselves for years after the infection, and chronic Lyme Disease can be tricky to diagnose and difficult to treat.
Amy Tan, the writer of the Joy Luck Club, wrote movingly about her experience of undiagnosed Lyme Disease, during which time she thought she was going mad. You can read an account of her experiences on her website: http://www.amytan.net/lyme-disease.html
You can also see examples of the rash of Lyme Disease on the NICE website: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng95/resources/lyme-disease-rash-images-pdf-4792273597
The NHS has a useful page which summarises the symptoms of Lyme Disease and what to do about ticks.
Infection number two: a global pandemic
In March 2020, Lyme Disease was behind me. I felt fit and healthy after a great walking holiday in the Canary Islands. With the weather forecast promising a few rain-free days in north-west Scotland, I decided it was time to resume my walking trek around the coast.
So, I booked a cottage through Airbnb, packed up my van, and was due to set off in the morning. The date was Monday, 16th March, 2020.
I knew Coronavirus had caused havoc in China and was now decimating the elderly population of northern Italy. But I thought I would be safe enough on my trip. Although I wasn’t going to sleep in my van – because the nights in March are too cold, and the campsites weren’t open – I was the lone guest in an isolated self-catering cottage. I was taking my own food, and knew the chance of meeting anyone at close quarters was remote.
The Airbnb host asked me to bring my own loo rolls, because the shops were empty. I discussed with him how we could keep everyone safe. He assured me he would give the place a thorough clean before and after my stay, and there were no other guests booked in for a couple of days on either side of my visit. I’d packed disinfectant wipes and alcohol spray.
That night, on the 16th March 2020, Boris Johnson held a press conference, and told us “to stop all unnecessary travel”. I phoned the Airbnb host and told him I thought I shouldn’t travel up to Scotland after all. Maybe in a few weeks… when the crisis blew over.
A few days later, the UK went into strict lockdown. The rest, my friends, is history.