With the arrival of the warmer months, long nights and the sun even making an appearance or two, now is a good time to brush up on your knowledge of ticks. What do they look like, how to remove them and how to reduce your chances of being bitten.
With the arrival of the warmer months, long nights and the sun even making an appearance or two, now is a good time to brush up on your knowledge of ticks. Ticks live off the blood of birds and mammals – including humans, and whilst most tick bites are essentially harmless, Lyme disease and Tick Borne Encephalitis (TBE) can develop which can be very harmful.
Below, is some information (taken from the British Mountaineering Council website) which outlines what ticks are, where they live, the diseases they carry, and how to minimise your risk of infection. For more information and a leaflet to download, see https://www.thebmc.co.uk/hill-skills-tick-alert.
What do ticks look like?
Where do they live?
Ticks may be present throughout the year but are particularly active between May and October and especially at times of warm weather. They are present in most parts of the country and most abundant in long grass, rough vegetation, bracken and woodland. Ticks live in the soil and emerge to climb tall grass, shrubs, bushes and low level tree branches up to a height of 20-70cm in search of a blood host. They attack when you, or an animal, brushes past and look for an area of soft skin to suck blood. They can attach themselves almost anywhere but prefer dark creases like the armpit, groin and back of the knee. You won’t feel a thing, as the tick injects a toxin to anaesthetise the bite area.
How do I remove a tick?
There’s nothing quite like discovering a tick on your body to make you squirm with disgust. That head buried in your skin, those little legs wiggling contentedly as it feeds on your blood. It’s a natural instinct to want to rip it out immediately, but wait - stack the odds in your favour by removing the critter properly.
Ticks can be tricky to remove as they use a cement-like substance to glue their mouthparts into place whilst they’re feeding. The best method is to get a good pair of tweezers, grip the tick as close to your skin as possible and pull it straight out. Remove ticks as soon as possible to reduce the risk of infection and take care to remove all of the mouthparts. To reduce the risk of infected materials being injected in to you, avoid squeezing the body of the tick, and don’t apply substances like Vaseline or burning it - no matter how tempting it is.
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria, and many popular UK and European walking areas have bacteria-infected ticks. But don’t panic, simply being bitten by a tick doesn’t mean you’ll contract Lyme disease - many believe an infected tick has to be on you for over 24 hours to transmit the bacteria in their saliva. However the risk is out there, so knowing how to get rid of ticks effectively if you have been bitten and knowing the signs of diseases they carry is crucial.
The most famous symptom of Lyme disease is a rash, consisting of a red ring-shaped rash which gradually spreads from the site of the tick bite, usually with a fading centre. It looks like a browny-red or pink expanding polo mint. It appears 2 - 40 days after infection and is the only sure-fire symptom of Lyme disease - so if you develop one take a photo immediately to show your doctor in case it disappears. Less than 50% of people with Lyme get this rash, and if left untreated a whole range of symptoms can develop, including a flu-like illness, facial palsy, viral-type meningitis, arthritic-like joint pains, nerve inflammation, disturbance of sensation or clumsiness of movement and encephalitis (swelling of the brain).
If you suspect you have Lyme disease then head straight to your GP. There is a blood test for Lyme but it’s acknowledged to have a very high rate of false negatives, so if your GP suspects Lyme, they should begin antibiotic treatment right away, without waiting on the results. Medical opinion is fiercely divided on the best antibiotics and dosages needed to eradicate symptoms, so it’s impossible to make recommendations. However taking antibiotics ‘just in case’ is a bad idea: the risk of catching a nasty from a single tick bite is very small.
Another treat carried by some ticks in Europe is Tick Borne Encephalitis (TBE) - 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, a cough and sniffles. The second phase can lead to neck stiffness, severe headaches, photophobia, delirium and paralysis. There is no specific treatment for TBE.
Climbers and walkers are again particularly at risk from TBE and ticks carrying the disease are found in many new destinations growing in popularity. 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.
Prevention is better than cure
Taking steps to prevent tick bites is better than digging the things out of your legs:
- Keep your skin covered, wear long trousers, tuck trousers into socks and wear a long-sleeved top.
- Light coloured fabrics are useful since the ticks stand out.
- Check clothes and skin frequently, paying particular attention to high-risk areas such as the armpits, groin, back of the knees, ankles, and scalp. Ideally do a buddy check every 3-4 hours.
- Check that ticks are not brought home on clothes, or pets.
- The application of insect repellent may also help to deter them.