Tick bites and Lyme disease: tips to avoid these tiny 'vampires'

Last week, I dealt with the slippery subject of jelly fish stings. So here's my 'part two' of advice relating to bites, stings and all things creepy crawly …

Ticks: what are they and what diseases can they carry?

Ticks - parasitic eight-legged insects - are infamous for their strong bite. These tiny vampires flourish in hot weather, and are commonly found in long grass and overgrown areas. There are many species, with one in particular common to the UK, the sheep tick, Ixodes ricinus. These fascinating creatures have been around since the dinosaurs, and live and feed by burrowing into animal skin and sucking on blood. All ticks are capable of carrying one or more diseases, and the most common we worry about is Lyme disease.

Tick bites are common on exposed skin areas, on animals (like your pet dog) and unfortunately, on children (from your pet dog.) The bites are more likely if the host is exposed to tall grass. Ticks tend to lie in wait on leaves and pounce, unannounced, on warm-blooded victims. Then they insert their jaw apparatus into the skin and secrete special chemicals to stop blood clotting. Then: grubs up. Nature is both fascinating and utterly horrifying.

How to spot a tick bite

Most bites are harmless and the simplest treatment is removal of the tick and sterilisation of the bite. To identify a bite, look for a rash that resembles a bullseye, sometimes with a visible tick wriggling in the middle. To remove the tick, use a firm gripped tick remover (available at your local vet, pet store, (or wild woodman's shack) and pull hard on the tick, straight up and out. Any twisting, jerking or crushing might leave the head in the skin; then it's a trip to the doctors for microsurgery. After the tick is out, clean the area and use a simple sterilising agent. We do not advise using heat or petroleum, especially in combination.

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?

The biggest concern is the rare transmission of the bug Borrelia burgdorferi, resulting in Lyme disease. Symptoms tend to occur from a week to ten days post bite, and are commonly nonspecific, with a rash, flu-like symptoms such as fever, malaise and joint pain and sickness. In these cases, the simple treatment of antibiotics and simple analgesia will usually suffice. Careful monitoring after a bite is recommended to watch for these symptoms.

Rarely, the disease may begin to affect other systems. Chest pain, funny heart beats and shortness of breath may indicate inflammation of the heart and surrounding coat. Numbness or paralysis may indicate nerve involvement. A stiff neck, headache and dislike of bright light may suggest meningitis. If you begin to develop these kinds of symptoms, a trip to the emergency room is advised as you may need specialist treatment alongside antibiotics.

Ticks may harbour other diseases, and to describe the wide range of them in detail would be confusing and not particularly helpful. If you feel unwell after a tick bite, even if the symptoms are not clear, go to see your doctor. As ever, prevention is better than cure, so avoid the bite if you can.

So that's ticks; bitey little bugs that might have B. burgdorferi. Wrap up, avoid tall grass, check your pets and see a doctor if you are concerned. Tick.

Ben is a young NHS doctor in the Southwest. His interests include neurology, health communication, and medical ethics. He is also an avid advocate of compassionate care and quality improvement, running a project in the Southwest around medical humanities.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's alone. Where facts are presented, these are evidence-based. The author is happy to receive questions. There are no conflicts of interest.

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