Why should we be concerned about ticks?
Ticks are small arachnids, within a subclass called Acari which feed on the blood of birds and mammals, including humans. They may carry a range of pathogens (bacteria, viruses, protozoans etc) which are then transmitted to the host when they bite. It is important to remove an attached tick as soon as possible. It is also important to remove the whole tick on one piece to avoid any pathogen being disgorged into your bloodstream during removal.
How do you remove a tick safely?
Use a tick removal tool such as a TickCard. There are other removal tools but we love our tick cards with their magnifying lens to ensure all of the tick has been removed from our bodies.
Using a tick card to remove a tick:
Tick cards are easy to carry with you and have small and medium sized slots in them to ‘flick’ embedded tick off your skin.
- Lay the card flat on your skin alongside the tick
- Slide the appropriate size of card slot under the side of the tick
- Lever the card up to ‘flick’ the tick off, gently
- Don’t flick it too hard else it might just land on another part of your body or someone else!
After you’ve removed the tick:
- Clean the wound area with a medi-wipe or soap and water
- Monitor the site for any rash that may appear
- Check the rest of your body for other ticks
- Put the tick on a hard surface and crush it using the end of the tick removal tool
- Clean the tick removal tool with a medi-wipe ready for future use
A note on ‘traditional’ methods of tick removal!…..
Fingernails, alcohols, Vaseline, matches and cigarette ends are not effective methods of removing or killing a tick in situ. they only stress the tick into regurgitating more saliva and hence increase the potential for infections transmission.
What do ticks look like?
The ticks causing concern in the UK are mainly the species Ixodes ricinis and have a 5 staged life cycle. Moving from one phase to another is done after a blood meal from a host. Larvae are very small, have 6 legs and are least likely to be infectious. At the nymph stage, they have 8 legs, easier to spot, and are often called ‘questing nymphs’ as they roam around eager to find a blood meal. They are considered more likely to carry a pathogen. Adults are larger and the female is larger than the male. In the UK, their life cycle may take 2-3 years. As they feed on their host, their bodies bloat with the blood they have consumed.
Will I feel them bite me?
Ticks are most active between spring and autumn but can be found throughout the year. They latch on to you from alighting from grasses, bushes and low tree branches. They move to a dark, moist place on your body and latch on with their mouths – in your armpits, stomach, groin, hairline, behind the ears or knees and between the toes. They then inject an anti-coagulant into you which acts like an anaesthetic on your skin and helps them feed on your blood. You most likely won’t feel them during this process which is why it’s important to check yourself regularly when out and about.
Why are ticks dangerous?
Ticks may be carriers of bacterial, viral or other pathogens that they have picked up from other hosts, i.e local wildlife or even your dog. When they bite into you, they regurgitate their stomach contents whilst feeding. If they have picked up a pathogen, they will infect your blood with it whilst attached. It is therefore very important to get the tick removed as soon as spotted. They may stay attached for up to 36 hours increasing the risk of infection throughout that time.
Not all ticks are infectious. Estimates vary from area to area and season to season but it is generally thought that 5-10% of ticks in the UK may be carrying infections harmful to humans.
Ticks are also found throughout Europe, Australia and in America. The term Lyme Disease originated from the town of Old Lyme in Connecticut, USA, where there was an outbreak of arthritis linked back to ticks.
What is Lyme Disease?
The most well known tick-borne disease is Lyme Disease and is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi which is carried in the stomach of an infected tick. Lyme Disease can be a lifestyle-changing disease with some serious long term health implications if not detected and treated early. More and more people are diagnosed with the disease but many more may go undetected.
What are the signs and symptoms of Lyme Disease?
Early signs, after a tick bite, may be a rash that appears and usually forms into a ‘bulls-eye’ shape on the skin and is called Erythema migrans. It may take between 2 – 40 days to first appear after the bite and it may grow over time. If you develop a rash, take a photo and mark the edge of the rash with a pen to monitor any change in size. Not all Lyme Disease rashes form into a bulls eye shape so don’t wait for it to do this! Go to your GP or Out of Hours clinic as rash is a diagnostic sign of Lyme Disease and needs to be checked out by a medical professional. Antibiotics is the recommended treatment.
However, without immediate treatment or if that treatment is unsuccessful, further symptoms that may develop within 3 months and include flu-like symptoms, facial palsy, joint pain and heart problems. Longer term symptoms may include chronic fatigue, neurological and arthritic problems.
How is Lyme Disease treated?
If presented early, a treatment of one of the recommended antibiotics such as doxycycline, amoxicillin or cefuroxime. will be prescribed and most people respond well to this with no further symptoms developing. Beyond this stage, or if attendance at your doctor is delayed, antibiotics and/or blood tests may be given or symptoms dealt with other appropriate treatments. The Royal College of General Practitioners has a dedicated page to assist your GP at every level of treatment.
Blood tests at an early stage are not always reliable as it detects the antibodies in your system and these take time to build up enough to be detected by the specific blood test. Blood tests later on in the progress of the disease are more reliable – and your GP will recommend for you the best care plan and monitoring.
How can I reduce the risk of infection?
- Be alert to the risk of ticks in an area and share this information with your companions
- Always have a tick removal card handy whether you’re in the countryside or in the garden
- Keep to footpaths and avoid long grass and overhanging tree branches
- Inspect yourself regularly whilst outdoors and when you get home. Have a buddy system in your group, family or workplace to inspect each other for ticks
- Wear appropriate clothing in tick-infested areas – a long sleeved shirt, trousers tucked into sock or gaiters
- Wear light coloured clothing as this may help you see ticks better
- Use inspect repellent on your clothes and skin. Check repellents are suitable for children or pregnant women. You can also buy treatments for clothes that you regularly wear outdoors
- Make sure you do not bring ticks home on your clothes or on your pets
- Wash your outdoor clothing to kill ticks, yes they can survive a low heat wash. The CDC (Centre for Disease Control & Prevention) gives advice.
What other diseases do ticks carry?
Ticks carry other diseases based on the local pathogens they encounter in their many hosts.
Tick-borne Encephalitis (TBE) is a viral infection recently confirmed in the south of England (2020). This attacks the nervous system and can result in meningitis, brain inflammation and death. Patients who present early with first stage symptoms usually recover with the help of painkillers and anti-inflammatories. Patients who develop second stage symptoms require hospital treatment.
Tick-borne Babesiosis has also recently been diagnosed in patients in the south of England (2020). This is caused by a Babesia protozoan infection from the tick. The disease is rarely tested for by doctors and global levels are unknown. Several species of Babesia cause the disease and the signs and symptoms can be wide ranging. They include fever, fatigue, anaemia and nausea, symptoms that are common in many other illnesses.
Crimean-Congo Haemorragic Fever (CCHF). A viral infection that has no treatment and kills up to 40% of infected humans. This is a similar scale to Ebola or bubonic plague. Domestic animals such as sheep and cattle can maintain the CCHF virus at high levels and this means the potential for CCHF to expand into new regions like Europe is possible.
Sever Fever with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome (SFTS). Only identified in 2009, SFTS has sparked widespread concern throughout much of Asia. In Japan, 57 people have dies off the disease since 2013. Signs of the disease can range in severity from relatively mild, such as fever and diarrhoea, to severe which can include organ failure. It is known to be carried by at least two tick species that are spread throughout the world including the UK.
Why are there more ticks around now?
Ticks can live in a wide range of habitats and have moved from grasslands and moorlands into parks and gardens. A combination of changes to our climate, increasing mobile human populations, increasing numbers of pets in households and habitat loss bringing wild animals in contact with urban areas has meant and increase in the spread of worldwide tick populations. Ticks can be killed off in a hard winter in the UK but these are less frequent now and therefore there is an increase in tick numbers.