The joys of summer also bring not so joyful insect bites! Midges, gnats, mosquitoes, you name it; bites can be annoying and irritating… But did you realise that tick bites also cause serious disease?
Jenny O’Dea from Tick Talk Ireland explains Why It’s Important to Protect Your Family From Tick Bites:
Preventing Tick Bites
Because ticks hang out in all sorts of places outdoors including grass, bracken, under trees, among leaf litter as well as in sand dunes and pasture land, it’s important to check yourself if you’ve spent any time outdoors.
More about Ticks
Ticks, who are in the family of spiders & mites, can be potentially life changing. They are tiny – from the size of a pin head to a sesame seed – and they prefer to hang out in long grass, bracken, under trees, among leaf litter as well as in sand dunes and pastureland.
They’re commonly associated with deer, although ticks are usually carried in the earlier stages of development by ground feeding birds such as robins, thrushes & blackbirds as well as the common garden mouse. Even hedgehogs & squirrels can carry ticks and it’s often these smaller hosts that transmit a serious infection called Lyme disease onto the feeding tick.
Lyme Disease and Its Symptoms
Once a tick has fed, they go into hiding to enable them to moult and mature into the next life stage. Unfortunately once they are ready to feed again they will carry the Lyme disease bacteria in their gut meaning the next blood meal (be it you, a child, a pet, a bird or animal) could be infected with nasty bacteria.
The Lyme bacteria known as borrelia is spirochetal, meaning it can burrow its way through blood, tissue & get into joints & organs. Due to the way it spreads it can cause a variety of symptoms, hence affecting people in lots of different ways.
In early Lyme disease stages, a singular rash, known as a bulls-eye rash, ‘may’ appear at the site of the bite within days to weeks of the bite which can gradually enlarge into rings resembling a dartboard.
It’s important to note that not everyone gets this rash & it doesn’t always look ring shaped, sometimes it can be uniform in nature and sometimes multiple rashes can occur.
The rash ‘tends’ not be painful or itchy unless a secondary infection has settled in during the tick bite. However any rash following a tick bite should be taken seriously as early treatment can prevent a more serious disease developing.
Lyme Disease Outcomes
Some patients may experience summertime flu, which after a tick bite is also a sign that infection may have taken hold. At this stage testing is usually negative so a doctor MUST treat immediately on suspicion of Lyme disease, especially if a tick bite has been reported.
In later stages of Lyme disease (which can take weeks to several years to develop) many symptoms can appear such as
- bell’s palsy or paralysis on side of face
- profound fatigue
- memory loss
- migratory joint pain
- muscle pains
- tingling & numbness
- in more serious cases meningitis can occur
- in very rare cases temporary or permanent paralysis can occur so prevention is much better than cure.
Patients can also be misdiagnosed with cross over illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis or ME / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Antibodies may develop slowly & testing can be inconclusive making diagnosis difficult.
Not all ticks will be infected, studies show tick infection rates from 11-29% plus some patients may be carriers without showing symptoms, but it’s good to be aware of the dangers.
Top Tips for How to Prevent Tick Bites
Ticks feed by crawling up tall grasses & holding their legs out (called a questing position). Using little hooks on their legs they can attach themselves to fur or clothing as the hosts pass by.
Here are some recommendations for avoiding and preventing tick bites:
- stick to well cut pathways & trails when walking
- keep garden lawns cut short & removing leaf litter away from the house
- use tick repellents on pets & humans. Some repellents are poisonous to cats so check the bottle to be sure.
- check regularly for ticks. Remember that ticks can still sneak past some repellents so check the outside of clothing whilst out walking, before getting into the car and around the body as soon as you get home.
- when checking for ticks on the body look in tucked away places such as behind the ear, back of knee, in the groin regions etc. They prefer thinner skin that’s well hidden so could be easy to miss.
- take a shower as soon as you get in if able
- place clothes in a hot machine wash plus a hot dry afterwards and that should kill any that might be hiding in clothes, as ticks can be killed in high heat
- remember to check inside shoes as well.
- If you walk or camp regularly, look out for sprays containing permethrin, this has to be applied to material only, not the skin, but it lasts for several washes before you need to re-apply.
- DO wear light coloured clothing so you can see ticks on you
- DO tuck trousers into socks so prevent ticks crawling up under clothes
- DO use tick repellents on family & pets before trips out to the countryside
- DO have a shower & wash clothes on your return
- DO check the body for any ticks, including tucked away places, checking yourself, children & pets too (ears are favourites as well as soft parts of tummy in pets)
Removing Ticks if You Get a Bite
- DON’T squeeze the tick, burn it or smother it (causing agitation to ticks can cause them to regurgitate their blood meal, thereby increasing the risk of disease transmission)
- DON’T jerk the tick suddenly as this may leave mouth parts behind, just pull gently & slowly
- DO remove gently with tick twisters, fine tipped tweezers or a cotton thread used as a noose
- DO keep removal tool as close to skin as possible, to remove the mouth parts from under the skin
- DO use an antiseptic wipe (if available) to prevent other infections getting into the bite area
- DO write on calendar when the tick bite happened (this will remind you to keep checking for a rash which could take days or weeks to develop)
- DO go to the doctor immediately if you develop any symptoms after a tick bite
If you have saved the tick after removal you can put it in a plastic freezer bag or sample pot & place it in the freezer. Laboratories can test the tick for infections if you are concerned.
Some say a tick needs to be on you for long periods of time to transmit any disease, however as research and opinions vary on this, we feel it’s best to be vigilant for symptoms, however long the tick has been feeding.
Useful Resources about Tick Bites and Lyme Disease
- Visit the Tick Talk Ireland website.
- The Adventures of Luna & Dips is a children’s e-book by Tick Talk Ireland available for Kindle on Amazon
- A free Luna poster for kids (PDF format)
- HPSC advice
- In the video below, natural historian David Bellamy, OBE, and TV Vet Steve Leonard discuss ticks in detail, including their life-cycle, the disease risks they pose and how to safely remove ticks from your pet.