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Ticks are members of the arachnid family - the same family as spiders and mites. They are ectoparasites (ie external parasites as opposed to internal parasites) and they feed on blood from mammals and birds.
There are three stages in the life cycle of the tick - larva, nymph and adult and the size and appearance changes at each stage. The larva are not much bigger than a poppy seed or full stop, whereas the adults are much bigger and have clearly visible legs like a minature spider. The nymph are somewhere in between both in size and appearance.
Typically ticks are found in long grass or leaf litter and on low plants. There are usually more ticks in woodland but they can also be found in fields and on moorland, especially where there are livestock and deer. However, they can also be found in other places where there is wildlife and plant cover, including town parks and gardens. Most ticks can be found in any place with moist air where they are protected from drying out.
Ticks can't fly and they're not very good at jumping. They are good at crawling though so they climb on as people or animals brush past and then look for a safe place to feed. Ticks embed themselves in their host in areas where the skin is thin (the back of the knee, the armpit, the groin) by inserting barbs into the skin. They secrete substances through their saliva glands which allow them to anchor themselves solidly in order to suck blood. Once a tick has started to feed, its body will become filled with blood. Adult females can swell to many times their original size. As their blood sacs fill they generally become lighter in colour and can reach the size of a small pea, generally grey in colour. Larvae, nymphs and adult males do not swell as much as they feed, so the size of the tick is not a reliable guide to the risk of infection. If undisturbed, a tick will feed for around 5 to 7 days before letting go and dropping off.
Firstly, it isn't really very nice being attacked by a blood sucking insect - there's something quite primeval about it, but secondly, and increasingly more importantly, there is the risk of catching a tick bourne disease such as Lyme disease. There are other tick-bourne diseases but the most common one in the UK is Lyme disease (which is also known as Borreliosis). Tick bites can be an issue if the tick happens to be infected (not all ticks are infected). Ticks feed on the blood of other animals so if a larval tick picks up an infection from a small animal such as a mice, when it next feeds as a nymph it can pass the infection to the next animal or human it bites. The infection is passed through bacteria in the ticks saliva.
Symptoms can usually begin a few days or upto 3 weeks after a tick bite. The most common sign is often an expanding pink or red rash which may reach up to 75cm in diameter if left untreated. The rash can appear like a bull's eye target or it may be more irregular. Not everyone has a rash so other symptoms may occur, such as fever, headache, chills, muscle and joint aches and extreme tiredness. If left untreated the infection can progress and result in more serious complications, such as skin lesions, heart abnormalities and neurological symptoms. If in doubt at any time medical advice should be obtained from a suitably qualified person.
Treatment with antibiotics in the early stages is normally successful but a delay in treatment can affect the course of recovery and may result in permanent tissue damage. If in doubt at any time medical advice should be obtained from a suitably qualified person.
Ticks have specialised saliva that numbs the bite area and keeps the blood flowing so it isn't always easy to tell when you've been bitten. Ticks can attach themselves almost anywhere on your body but they prefer warm, moist areas where blood flows close to the skin, such as the back of your knees and elbows, armpits, groin, behind your ears and on your scalp. Consequently, it's important to check yourself regularly all over if you have been in an area where ticks are likely to be.
Probably not - the majority of people who are bitten by a tick do not show any symptoms of the disease. Not every tick carries infective organisms, and even if it does not every bite transmits the disease, particularly if the tick is removed as soon as possible. However, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease so you can look out for it if you know you've been bitten or if you've been in an area where you could have been bitten.
If you find a tick you should remove it as soon as possible. If left alone a tick may feed for up to a week, gradually swelling in size and increasing the risk of infection as time passes - the longer an infected tick is allowed to feed, the more likely it is that it will pass on the disease.
Your main aims are to remove the tick promptly, to remove all parts of the tick’s body and to prevent it releasing additional saliva or regurgitating its stomach contents into your bite wound.
DO use a proprietary tick removal tool and follow the instructions provided. These tools will grip the head of the tick without squashing the body. If no tools are available, rather than delay use a fine thread, something like cotton or dental floss. Tie a single loop of thread around the tick’s mouthparts, as close to the skin as possible, then pull upwards and outwards without twisting.
DO start by cleansing the tweezers/tool with antiseptic. After tick removal, cleanse the bite site and the tool with antiseptic.
DO wash hands thoroughly afterwards.
DO NOT squeeze the body of the tick, as this may cause the head and body to separate, leaving the head embedded in your skin.
DO NOT use your fingernails to remove a tick. Infection can enter via any breaks in your skin, e.g. close to the fingernail.
DO NOT crush the tick’s body, as this may cause it to regurgitate its infected stomach contents into the bite wound.
DO NOT try to burn the tick off, apply petroleum jelly, nail polish or any other chemical. Any of these methods can cause discomfort to the tick, resulting in regurgitation, or saliva release.
This is one of the most important questions because prevention is always much better than cure:
- Be tick aware - know where to expect ticks so that you know when to take precautions to protect yourself.
- Cover up - wear long sleeved tops and long trousers, and tuck your trouser legs into your socks. Wearing gaitors, tick proof over socks and insect repellent clothing can also help enormously.
- Use an insect repellent - insect repellent can help to protect any exposed areas. Clothing can also be treated with Bug Proof permethrin clothing spray to make it insect repellent.
And don't forget the action that should be taken after spending time in an area where there might be ticks:
- Check your body carefully for ticks - ticks can attach themselves almost anywhere on your body but they prefer warm, moist areas where blood flows close to the skin, such as the back of your knees and elbows, armpits, groin, behind your ears and on your scalp. Consequently, it's important to check yourself regularly all over if you have been in an area where ticks are likely to be.
- Don't take ticks home with you - check your clothing and pets for ticks to avoid bringing them inside.
Pets and other animals are also prone to tick bites so they should be inspected regularly and any ticks found removed as soon as possible. If in doubt at any time talk to a vet about appropiate treatment.
There are several different organisations that have been set up to provide information and support regarding ticks and tick bourne diseases:
LDA - Lyme Disease Action: www.lymediseaseaction.org.uk
Tick Alert: www.tickalert.org
Organic Daily Post - 4 Stages of Lymes Disease: https://organicdailypost.com/stage-1-lyme-disease/