Today’s blog is written by Sophie Whitemore, a student at Peter Symonds College. She has just finished her A-Levels in Biology and Environmental Science and was an intern at OS for a week this summer.
Tick-Tock Tick-Tock, summer is drawing to an end and many of you may have spent the past few months walking, cycling, roaming and exploring around the Great British Isles. Scarily, you probably were not alone.
Along with all the woodland creatures you may have spent some time with Ixodes Ricinus (Tick) and this time of the year is the most popular time for this type of tick to make an unwanted appearance.
A tick is a small arachnid in the same well-loved(!) family as spiders, mites and scorpions. When they first attach they are roughly the same size as a full stop on this page but will grow to the size of a garden pea as their body swells and fills with blood.
A tick will attach itself to any animal that passes by – deer, dog or human – and often then search for a comfortable place to suck the blood of the unlucky host. Ticks survive in many places but have a preference of warm and moist places on your body; also they are most active between April and October which conveniently corresponds to the time of year that we go out most – how irritating!
While the bites themselves don’t cause the average victim any serious problems, ticks can carry a bacteria (borrelia burgdorferi) which can lead to Lyme Disease. This causes flu-like symptoms, such as tiredness, headaches and muscle or joint pain and if untreated can go on to cause more serious problems, such as muscle pain, swelling of the joints and neurological symptoms such as temporary paralysis of the facial muscles. Lyme disease in its late stages can trigger symptoms similar to those of fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome
Due to their small size often the ticks can go unnoticed which makes the risk of disease worse, the longer the tick remains on your body the higher the risk of getting Lyme Disease. The most risky areas in the UK are those of woodland, long grasses and undergrowth where it is warmer and more humid. In the UK there are very high populations of ticks in:
- New forest
- South Downs
- Lake District
Map from Public Health England.
Only a small proportion of ticks carry Lyme Disease however there currently is no vaccine available for it so the only way of preventing symptoms is to take a course of antibiotics. The first symptoms are generally a red rash in a ‘bullseye’ ring around the bite. Lyme Disease can go on to affect the skin, joints, heart and nervous system and symptoms such as rashes, headaches and stiff necks can occur after as little as 2 days, but may also take up to 30 days to become obvious. The potentially dangerous complications make it important to seek treatment quickly, but it is more effective to try and prevent being bitten in the first place. This can be done by:
- Wearing lighter coloured clothing when visiting high risk areas. Although less practical for those of you who love rolling around and annoying to wash out grass stains it allows ticks to be spotted much more easily before they find skin.
- Check your skin and everyone else’s when you arrive back after a walk or day out. Ticks can travel on up your body inside our outside clothing to reach their favourite dark damp spots in the groin or armpits
- Avoid contact with long grass and tall vegetation where possible
- Cover legs and arms with long sleeves and trousers to avoid ticks attaching to your skin. Craghoppers has a range of clothing with insect repellent in the clothes which would discourage ticks from attaching.
If any ticks are found, remove them carefully. The recommended method is to remove it by gently gripping it as close to the skin as possible, preferably using fine-toothed tweezers, and pull steadily away from the skin. You can even get specifically designed tick removal tweezers in some first aid kits.
Never use a lit cigarette end, a match head or similar to force the tick out, as this can lead to them regurgitating (yup, being sick), increasing the chance of the bacteria being transmitted. Make tick checking and removal a priority, as the longer a tick is attached the more chance there is for the Lyme Disease bacteria to be transferred.
For all you dog walkers you may be interested to hear Lyme Disease can also be transferred to dogs. Just the same as Lyme Disease in humans it is transferred by the bite of an infected tick. The usual symptoms include lameness (inability to move) due to inflammation within joints but also can cause a lack of appetite and depression. More serious symptoms include kidney, heart and nervous system damage much like the symptoms in humans.
Preventing Lyme Disease is easier in dogs; the disease is generally only transferred from the tick after 18 hours. If the tick is removed before this there is less chance of infection. Dogs can be treated with antibiotics but may end up with joint problems for the rest of their lives.
Please don’t be scared – relatively few ticks carry Lyme Disease and even if they do carry it your chances of infection are fairly low. There are about 2000 to 3000 cases annually in England and Wales (no data for Scotland at this time), with most being treated before reaching the acute stage. Being aware of Lyme Disease and dealing with ticks quickly will substantially cut your risk.