Buckinghamshire Musculoskeletal Integrated Care Service
Buckinghamshire Musculoskeletal Integrated Care Service (MuSIC)

Are you tick aware?

July 10 2019

A tiny blood sucking creature no bigger than a pin head has the potential to cause a whole range of health issues if it gets the chance to attach itself to your skin.

With the nice weather we’ve been having recently and are set to see more of soon, encouraging us all outside, it’s worth finding out a little more about ticks.

Ticks are tiny, spider-like creatures which feed on the blood of birds and mammals, including humans. Ticks can carry the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease – something which is hard to diagnose but can lead to conditions varying from joint pain to serious heart problems and even meningitis.

Ticks can survive in many places but prefer moist areas with dense vegetation or long grass. People, rightly, associate them with wide open countryside areas but they can also be found in some urban parks and gardens.

The species of tick most frequently found on people is the sheep or deer tick and the bad news is that numbers are increasing, mainly due to changing weather patterns that are favourable to ticks such as wetter summers and warmer winters.

Ticks wait on vegetation until an animal or person brushes past. Then they climb on to their skin and find a suitable spot to attach to the skin by biting. Then they start to feed on the person’s blood. It may take several days to complete their blood meal before they drop off. Ticks are most active between spring and autumn although mild winters mean they can bite at almost any time of the year.

If someone is bitten, they may develop a characteristic expanding or ‘bulls-eye’ rash, but this isn’t always the case. If you do, take a photograph of the rash.

Lyme disease can be treated with a course of antibiotics. Without treatment, more serious conditions such as viral like meningitis, facial palsy, nerve damage and arthritis develop, so prevention and early detection are crucial.

Ticks prefer warm, moist places on your body, especially the groin area, waist, arm pits, behind the knee and along hair lines, so look out for anything which resembles a tiny mole or a speck of dirt. At the early stage of development, a tick is no bigger than a poppy seed. As they feed on your blood, they gradually swell up.

Young children are more commonly bitten on the head or scalp so if you have children who have been outdoors, so check around their neck, behind the ears and along the hairline as soon as you get home.

The best thing is to be tick aware and try to avoid being bitten. People recommend the following precautions:

  • Stay on defined paths so that you don’t brush against the vegetation
  • Don’t wear shorts or skirts if you plan to walk through rough vegetation – long trousers will make it harder for the ticks to attach themselves
  • Wear lighter coloured trousers so you can spot ticks – check clothing before you set off home
  • Wear socks and shoes, not open sandals and check the tops of your socks when you stop for a break
  • Wear an insect repellent – your local pharmacist can offer advice on the best kind to buy.

However, if you do get bitten, removing the tick quickly and correctly can help to reduce any potential risk:

  • Remove the tick as soon as possible
  • The safest way to remove a tick is to use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers, or a tick removal tool. This is a small plastic device with a claw or ‘V’ shaped section. You can get them from many camping shops, vets or pet shops and many walkers recommend carrying one with you on your walk.
  • Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. You should aim to remove the mouthparts without squeezing the body as this can force the infected stomach contents of the tick into your blood. Never use heat, alcohol or essential oils.
  • Pull upwards slowly and firmly, as mouthparts left in the skin can cause a local infection.
  • Dispose of the tick safely by flushing down the loo or wrapping it and putting it in a bin so it can’t go on to bite someone else.
  • Once removed, apply antiseptic to the bite area or wash with soap and water and keep an eye on it for several weeks for any changes.

Contact your GP if you begin to feel unwell with any of the symptoms of Lyme disease – especially if you have had the circular rash and make sure to tell him or her that you have been bitten by a tick.

Not all ticks are infected with the bacteria that cause Lyme disease and ticks aren’t found everywhere. Below is a list of areas known to have a higher risk of getting bitten:

  • Exmoor
  • The New Forest and other rural areas of Hampshire
  • The South Downs
  • Parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire
  • Parts of Surrey and West Sussex
  • Thetford Forest in Norfolk
  • The Lake District
  • The North York Moors
  • The Scottish Highlands

If you’re in any doubt about a tick bite or subsequent symptoms, speak to your local pharmacist or your GP surgery. And don’t let the threat of ticks put you off because a walk in the fresh air has so many health benefits.