Ticks and Lyme disease have been an increasingly popular subject over the last couple of years. But what actually are ticks? And what is Lyme disease? This blog aims to educate on preventing tick bites and how to appropriately respond to a bite. In addition, we will also provide information on Lyme disease, how to recognise it, and what to do if you think you have it.
A tick is a small external parasite that lives off the blood of birds and mammals – including people. Ticks are spider-like and their size varies between 1mm to 1cm long. They can be found anywhere, but more commonly in woodland and moorland, and are particularly common between March and October.
Ticks live in the soil, but when the female nears the time of reproduction she needs blood to help develop her eggs. They climb to the top of grass, bushes, hedges, plants and attach themselves to the next available blood source that happens to be passing.
“Ticks climb to the top of grass, bushes, hedges, plants and attach themselves to the next available blood source that happens to be passing.”
Yes. Mammals are a target for ticks, so you or your pet are in the biting line. Sometimes you can pick up ticks in the home if brought back into the house on your pets’ fur.
Ticks can climb up to a height of 20-70cm in search of a blood host. When you brush past long vegetation they can climb into your clothing. They’ll look for an area of soft skin to insert their feeding organ and suck blood.
Here’s the thing. You won’t feel anything. The tick injects a chemical into your skin to anaesthetise the bite area. Once embedded they will steadily engorge as they feed on your blood for at least a few hours and commonly up to a few days.
They can attach themselves almost anywhere, but prefer dark and warm creases like the armpit, groin, waist, chest, and the backs of the knees. These are often the hidden places with skin folds the ticks will crawl between. In children, ticks can attach to the head, neck and behind the ears. It is quite common to have several ticks at once in different places.
If a tick has attached itself to you, then you need to remove it as soon as possible.
When out on a walk, and on returning home inspect your skin for ticks, including your head, neck and skin folds (armpits, groin, and waistband). Check children’s head and neck areas, including their scalp.
No, but they are experts at crawling around clothing and finding gaps where they can get underneath it.
If a tick has attached itself, remove it as soon as possible. Once removed, clean the area with an antiseptic wipe or wash the area with soap and water. If the tick’s mouthparts break off in the skin, these may cause local irritation but should fall out naturally in time.
It’s a good idea to take a picture of the tick or the rash around the tick bite so you can show your GP if you need to visit them. Some people collect the tick and store it in alcohol, it can be tested for Lyme Disease at a later date if required.
You won’t always know. If a tick has attached and engorged itself and then dropped off with you noticing, then you may well be left with just a red patch on your skin. The best way to know is to do regular tick checks as described above.
Attached ticks should be removed promptly, within the first 24 hours. The simplest method is to pull the tick out with tweezers as close to the skin as possible and avoiding crushing the body of the tick or removing the head from the tick’s body. Think that in removing the tick you want to keep it alive and don’t kill it.
Alternatively, you can use specialist pet tick twisters or tick cards. Use a plastic tick removal device that looks like either a small claw hammer or credit card. These are available in many outdoor stores, pharmacies and rural shops. It’s a good idea to have these devices handy in first aid kits, backpacks and car glove boxes.
As a last resort, fingernails can be used by holding the tick close to the skin and pulling steadily.
Don’t use a lit cigarette end, a match head or substances such as alcohol or petroleum jelly to force the tick out.
If all that happens when ticks bite you is suck your blood, then we would be a lot less concerned about them. Some ticks are carriers of Lyme Disease.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection carried by deer and sheep ticks across the UK. Infection occurs when an infected tick bites a human and transfers the bacteria into our bloodstream. Lyme Disease can be a life-changing illness.
Lyme Disease occurs across the world and was first described from around the town of Lyme, Connecticut in New England, USA.
The risk of contracting the bacteria is very low if a tick is removed promptly using a correct technique, such as with “tick twisters”. The risk of infection increases with time attached, and if attached for fewer than 24 hours, infection less likely. Current research is showing that around 10% of ticks in Scotland are carriers of Lyme Disease, so not all ticks are carriers.
The most famous symptom of ticks and Lyme disease is a bull’s eye rash consisting of a red ring-shaped rash which gradually spreads from the site of the tick bite. It appears 2 – 40 days after infection. Less than 50% of people with Lyme get this rash. Not everyone with Lyme disease will get the rash.
Other early symptoms would be flu-like ones:
Anyone who suspects that they have developed a reaction to a tick bite should visit a GP without delay. Mention ticks, Lyme disease, and recent outdoor recreational use.
The rash can appear up to 3 months after the bite and usually lasts for several weeks. Most rashes appear within the first 4 weeks. Other symptoms may appear 1-4 weeks after
Keep an eye on anywhere you have a tick bite. There is no need to consult your GP if you have been bitten and have no symptoms. If you develop a rash or experience flu-like symptoms after being bitten, then you should see your GP. Remember that most tick bites are harmless and only a small number of ticks are infected with the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. A tick bite can only cause Lyme disease in humans if the tick has already bitten an infected animal. But it’s still important to be aware of ticks and to safely remove them as soon as possible, just in case.
If you develop symptoms of Lyme disease or have been diagnosed with Lyme disease you will normally receive a course of antibiotics. Left untreated a whole range of symptoms can develop. This includes flu-like illness, facial palsy, viral-type meningitis, arthritic-like joint pains. Lyme Disease can be a serious and debilitating illness.
We used to think that Lyme Disease was isolated to a few areas in Scotland, however, research has shown it is present throughout Scotland and the UK. In addition, tick numbers appear to have increased in recent years due to changes in farming practice and increasingly warm winters.
Another disease carried by some ticks in Europe is Tick-Borne Encephalitis (TBE). This is a viral disease that attacks the nervous system and can result in serious meningitis, brain inflammation and death.
TBE incubation time is 6-14 days and at first, it can cause increased temperature, headaches, fever, cough, and the sniffles. The second phase can lead to neck stiffness, severe headaches, photophobia, delirium and paralysis.
TBE is endemic in the forest and mountainous regions of Austria, Belarus, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland and Ukraine.
Tick Alert has produced a guide, which gives clear and easy-to-understand information and advice about TBE in Europe. Download ‘Protect yourself from TBE in Europe’
Cory Jones has lead expeditions worldwide. He holds the International Mountain Leader Award and has worked as a guide for Wilderness Scotland since 2011. Cory is a director of Outdoor First Aid Limited, as well as being a founder of the First Aid Training Co-operative.
You can download a free ‘Outdoor First Aid’ manual for your smartphone here.