Staying alert to Ticks and Lyme Disease

Ixodes ricinus tick by Thomas Zimmermann Creative Commons Licence

Ixodes ricinus tick by Thomas Zimmermann Creative Commons Licence

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:

  • Exmoor
  • New forest
  • South Downs
  • Lake District

map of ticks
Map from Public Health England.

Classic 'bullseye' Lyme Disease rash

Classic ‘bullseye’ Lyme Disease rash – image from CDC/James Gathany

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.

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8 Responses

  1. Tim Jebbett

    You should never pull a tick out with tweezers, better is to smother it with petroleum jelly and it will leave of its own free will as it can’t breathe if smothered. Another substance which will shift it is surgical spirit.

    1. Hi Tim. Trying to smother a tick is not recommended for two reasons: firstly, they actually have a really low respiratory rate (3-15 breaths per hour), so they will remain for some considerable time even when fully coated, giving them more chance to pass on any bacteria. Some researches believe once fully attached they do not breathe at all.

      Secondly, and more importantly, is that petroleum jelly, alcohol or heat may cause them to regurgitate immediately. While this will get the tick out it considerably increases the chance of any pathogens being transferred.

      I’ve taken this advice from a number of sources, including the NHS, Public Health England and the Lyme Disease Action charity – please follow the links for more information.

    2. saz

      Ticks MUST NOT be smothered in anything…this forces them to regurgitate and highly increases the possibility of passing the bacteria into its host….
      Lyme disease is not to be taken lightly, nor any other diseases that ticks can carry. Protect yourself and your loved ones from falling ill.

    3. Andrew Norris

      Glad you guys replied. Tim seemed so sure of his advise that I was actually planning on packing some petroleum jelly and then I read your replies. Just shows better to listen to experts than someone on a forum, however sure and confident they sound.

  2. Cadair Geoff

    A preventative vaccination is available from Dr but costs about £60 a shot and 3 shots are necessary for optimum protection taken over a few months.

  3. Gill McKenna

    Never smother the ticks with anything. This causes them to empty the contents of their stomach (Lyme and co infections) into the host. Remove asap with sharp pointed tweezers as close to the skin as possible. Gently but firmly pull. No sharp tugs. Clean the area with alcohol wipes and watch for rash or flu like symptoms. Never smother them or pyrn them and certainly do not squeeze their body.

  4. Clare C

    My husband is a keen gardener. We are thinking of retiring near Ross-on-Wye or the Malverns. Have heard there may be a risk of ticks around the Forest of Dean. I’d be grateful if you could let me know if the area near Ross and the Malverns are relatively safe in this regard.

    1. Hi Clare. There are ticks in suitable habitats across the UK, but the prevalence of Lyme disease varies. The Forest of Dean is NOT mentioned by the NHS as one of the high risk places. The map in this post shows that there have been low numbers of ticks found in this area compared to the South Coast and Highlands.

      Gardeners will be relatively safe, as normal tick habitat is woodland and tall grasses and areas where there are mammals such as deer to feed from. The number of cases in the UK is still fairly small (1000 reported last year, with up to 3000 estimated), but Lyme disease can be hard to spot, which is why we highlighted it in this post. There’s a recent update from one of the specialists from Public Health England at https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2014/03/24/tips-and-tricks-to-stay-safe-from-ticks/.

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