This morning I found two ticks attached to the back of my knee. Quite small, they were probably at the “nymph” stage of their life rather than fully grown. It was impossible to know how long they’d been there but they didn’t seem to be particularly fat on blood yet. We’d just had what felt like a break for freedom, our first real outdoor weekend since lockdown. Running in the Mendip hills on Saturday and rock climbing limestone quarries in south Wales on Sunday. Either location could be prime locations for ticks with long, wild vegetation and the presence of both domestic and wild animals. The hot weather meant I was wearing shorts during the run and my trousers were rolled up during climbing.
Ticks feed on the blood of animals, attaching firmly to soft skin, sometimes feeding for days. When full they simply drop off and wait for a new host. Hanging onto the leaves of grasses, ferns and shrubs they can sense the approaching heat, breath and vibrations and stretch out their front legs to attach on contact. They might then wander unnoticed until they find a soft patch of skin – the backs of knees, groin and armpits are common.
The thought of these small creatures exploring the crevices of your body is unpleasant enough but they can also transmit disease from host to host. At least 10% of ticks in the UK are estimated to carry Lyme Disease and Tick Borne Encephalitis appears to have made the jump from mainland Europe recently (very limited spread and numbers). Untreated Lyme Disease can cause flu like symptoms at first, leading to arthritis, muscle paralysis and meningitis amongst other serious and long lasting complications.
Prevention is the first line of defence of course. Long trousers tucked into socks if expecting to be in tick country (woodland, heathland), application of insect repellent to exposed skin. Then checking yourself, not just your lower legs as ticks like to find a place to hide, check your crevices. I failed at these first two. We ran, in shorts, through a patch of bracken on Saturday and I thought “Ticks!” to myself before filing that thought into the mental “to do” list. It was Monday morning that I had an itch and discovered them. Another important note is that people often don’t feel anything, the ticks secrete an analgesic so can remain for days. Transmission of Lyme Disease isn’t instant so swift recognition and removal is key.
Removal is next and there are many ideas of methods always circulating but I would not remove them with anything other than a tick removal tool. You want to remove the whole tick, not leave any bits still buried in your skin. You don’t want to squash, suffocate or panic the tick into vomiting it’s contents back into you because that is as bad as it sounds. A tick removal tool allows to prise it out unharmed (you can kill it afterwards if you want or perhaps post it off to Public Health England for their tick survey)
Having a tick doesn’t mean you’ll get a disease from it. Most ticks are actually disease free, it depends on if there are already infections in the area. Swift removal also limits the chances, however the consequences of Lyme Disease are serious enough that awareness is needed. Consider speaking to your GP after removing a tick; find out if there are incidences of Lyme Disease in the area you were in; know the early signs of infection. Many people, but not all, will develop a bullseye rash around the bite. Flu like symptoms can follow. Early treatment can prevent further complications so have some vigilance, perhaps a note of when and where you got the tick to refer to.