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8 Aug 2019

Tick talk

Ticks look like little black spiders – about the size of a freckle
Ticks look like little black spiders – about the size of a freckle
Lyme disease is an infectious disease spread by ticks. Here we provide helpful hints and tips on avoiding tick bites and what to do if you get bitten.

You may have heard through the media that recent research revealed that Lyme disease is three times more prevalent in the UK than previously thought, with as many as 8,000 people contracting it.

Lyme disease is nasty. It’s a bacterial infection that’s passed on through being bitten by an infected tick. Ticks look like little black spiders – about the size of a freckle. They feed on the blood of animals (and humans) and are typically found in dense, moist vegetation.

Scotland, of course, has lots of damp places with long grass and dense vegetation and is something of a paradise for ticks. Warm and wet summers, like we’ve been experiencing lately, usually mean an increase in the tick population and there’s been a definite surge in cases of Lyme disease here in the last decade.

Ticks look like little black spiders – about the size of a freckle
Ticks look like little black spiders – about the size of a freckle

While you can get a tick bite in your own back garden, the chances increase in the open spaces of moorland and wild land. Ticks don’t jump or fly but wait until an unsuspecting host brushes past and then climb aboard. They bury their head into the skin to begin feeding.

Their bite is painless, so you might not realise they’re there, even though it may take several days for them to have their fill and drop off. As they prefer to feed in warm, moist parts of the body – like around the waist and back, the back of the knee, armpit, groin and in and around hair and ears – they can be quite difficult to spot. Even if you are bitten, the chances are you won’t develop Lyme disease as only a small proportion of ticks are carriers. But if you do, the effects can be life-changing. At its worst, the disease can cause viral-like meningitis, facial palsy, nerve damage and arthritis if left untreated. These symptoms can appear weeks or months after infection.

The most distinctive symptom of a tick bite is a bull’s-eye rash.
The most distinctive symptom of a tick bite is a bull’s-eye rash.

However, there’s no need to panic and avoid the countryside – there are some simple things you can do to minimise the risks:

  • Walk on clearly defined paths and avoid long grass
  • Avoid dense vegetation
  • Wear light-coloured clothing, so ticks are easy to spot and brush off
  • Wear long sleeves and ideally tuck long trousers into your socks or boots
  • Avoid sitting in the grass
  • Use insect repellent
  • Check your skin when you get home

If you find a feeding tick on your skin, remove it as quickly as possible – ideally with a tool that you can buy at camping shops, or with fine tweezers. Avoid leaving the head inside your skin or crushing the tick as that may lead to infection. Apply antiseptic to the bite area. If you are unfortunate enough to contract Lyme disease, the most distinctive symptom is a red rash shaped like a bull’s-eye. Other symptoms may include nausea, fatigue, fever, headaches, neck stiffness or flu-like illness. If you feel at all unwell, visit your GP.

There is excellent advice available from the Health Protection Scotland website.