Could you recognise and remove a tick?

Tick

I still remember when I first saw a tick. It was embedded in my waistline while I was having a long overdue shower after a few days in the wild. It looked like a small raised freckle, but I soon realised it had eight legs!

This was 2003 and I hadn’t been in Scotland long. I’d been on Jura to go to an wedding with a friend, camping outside the hotel in Craighouse.

The next day we tried to banish our hangovers with a trip along the west coast, leaving our bikes at the end of the road and setting off across wild country. I don’t know whether I picked up the tick while camping or from the heather I walked through, but the next day I found four of them.

 A tick alongside the head of a matchstick.

Since then I’ve had dozens of ticks, and sadly I appear to be something of a magnet for them, my special tick removal tweezers are never far away. I use insect repellent, rarely walk in shorts and constantly check my trousers especially if I’ve had to walk through bracken or long grass.

I also give my boots a good brush when I get home and have tick inspections in the shower for a few days afterwards. But it’s important to be aware that ticks aren’t just found in the wilds of Jura – I also picked one up from a golf course in East Lothian, and they are present in urban parks too.

While it’s pretty grim to find one attached your flesh, a small proportion of them also carry Lyme disease which can be passed on to the person they bite and be very serious if not treated in the early stages. It’s difficult to know how widespread Lyme disease is in the UK because it’s not a notifiable disease.

Anecdotally, however, it does appear to be getting more prevalent, and the numbers of ticks also seem to be on the rise, perhaps because of changes in land management practices or due to climate change and the milder winters we’re having – or maybe we’re just reporting our concerns to doctors more often.

On average in the UK about 6% of ticks carry infection but it varies from place to place and year to year.  

Of course, you may not always realise you’ve had a tick bite, but if you’re a walker who’s experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, fever, nausea or headaches, it’s worth mentioning to your doctor that you could have been exposed to ticks. Also note that the ticks which attach to humans are about the size of a poppy seed – much smaller than the ones you may be used to seeing on your pets.

Tick habitatBracken fields at Loch Arkaig: classic tick habitat.

As an organisation which represents the interests of walkers, it’s important that Ramblers Scotland raises awareness of the dangers of Lyme disease, gives clear guidance on how walkers can avoid getting bitten and sets out the steps for removing ticks safely.

But it’s also important that walkers don’t get put off from going outdoors for fear of ticks, thereby missing out on all the amazing benefits to health and wellbeing of being active in the natural environment. While Lyme disease is very nasty, if you take careful precautions you’re very likely to avoid it altogether.

Take the approach of my friends who recently moved from Edinburgh to the Cairngorms with their three boys under the age of 12. Drawn by the potential of a more active, outdoors lifestyle, they certainly don’t want to deter their children from playing in the garden or the nearby woods. Instead the boys have been coached in avoiding areas where ticks are likely to be and watching out for any beasties which might have attached themselves.  

While ticks don’t just come out in summer, along with midges, clegs, wasps – and slow caravans on a busy trunk road – they are one of the pests which you notice more at this time of year.  We all need to be aware but please don’t let them spoil your great day out! 

For more information on how to avoid and deal with ticks, go here.

Ticks are tiny blood-sucking arachnids which can be found in areas of dense vegetation, such as long grass or bracken. They can attach themselves to you and feed on your blood by biting through your skin. Ticks are known to carry a variety of diseases. The most serious of these is Lyme disease, which can be transmitted through the bite of an infected sheep tick.

If you are planning to go walking in an area of dense vegetation, consider taking the following precautions:

  • Wear trousers and long-sleeved shirts and keep cuffs fastened and trousers tucked into socks.
  • Wear shoes or boots rather than open sandals.
  • Use insect repellent: DEET or Permethrin can protect against ticks for several hours.
  • If you find a tick, remove it quickly, preferably with a specially-designed tick removal tool. These are better than household tweezers as they avoid the risk of squashing the tick and releasing fluids into your skin. In an emergency you can use a thread of cotton looped around the tick’s mouthparts, which you then pull steadily upwards.
  • Dogs are also vulnerable to ticks: consult your vet for insect repellent or a tick collar.
  • After your walk, carefully brush all clothing and examine yourself for ticks. Pay special attention to their favourite feeding places: the backs of knees, around the groin, under the arms and, especially on small children, the hairline and scalp.

If part of the tick breaks off or you think any part of it may be left in your skin, wash the site thoroughly but don’t worry about digging with a needle as that may do more damage. Your body will deal with any embedded remains. Consult a doctor if the small area of redness gets worse. 

Further information on Lyme disease and ticks can be obtained from NHS Direct, or from the charity Lyme Disease Action, which has a range of free literature on the subject, and a selection of tick removers.