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Tick bites: how to recognise and treat

Enjoying long walks and spending time in nature is great for your health. However, when appreciating the great outdoors, it's important to remember that walking in woodlands or spending time in grassed areas is not without risk.

One risk comes from a tick: often found in grassy or wooded areas, these tiny arachnids survive by attaching to the skin of animals and humans and feeding on the blood of their host.

Tick numbers are on the rise in the UK, and while only a small minority pose a risk to human health, it's important to be aware of this potential risk they pose, how to remove a tick, and how tick bites should be treated.

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What does a tick look like?

To the naked eye, a tick may be almost undetectable when first attached to your skin. Over a period of time - up to around 36 hours - the tick will gradually become engorged from consuming blood and will be easier to notice.

Ticks burrow into the skin of their host, meaning that if one has attached you may just see part of their body - which swells as blood is consumed. After a tick is engorged it may appear like a black or brown bean against the skin.

How to remove a tick

The minute you notice a tick on your skin, it's tempting to pull it off. But it's important to remove ticks carefully to minimise the risk of infection. As the visible end of a tick may be engorged with blood and bacteria, it's important to avoid squashing the body when removing the tick as this may cause the release of harmful bacteria into your bloodstream.

How to treat a tick bite

Special tick removal tools are available from pharmacies. These grip the underside of the tick and aid removal without putting pressure on the engorged body of the tick. However, tweezers can be used, albeit with caution. If you find a tick on your skin, Dr Thuva Amuthan, GP and skin specialist, advises: "Use a tweezer or removal tool to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Being careful not to crush the tick, slowly pull upwards to remove and dispose of it as soon as possible. Clean the bite and apply antiseptic."

How can I tell if I've been bitten?

Ticks will usually drop from the skin when engorged without the host noticing. So, it's important to be aware of the tell-tale signs of a tick-bite. If ticks attach, then drop from your skin unnoticed, they will often leave a mark behind. This may present as a red patch, bruise, or rash.

"Tick bites usually aren't painful, although you may get some itching," says Amuthan "The tell-tale sign of a tick bite is the bulls-eye rash - a rash that is red at the centre, with an additional ring of red skin surrounding it, which may increase in size over time. A tick bite may also look like a bruise on darker skin. Some people get flu like symptoms as a result of a tick bite."

Bulls eye rash

Lyme disease rash

Do you always get Lyme disease from a tick bite?

While having a tick bite may feel alarming, only a tiny minority of ticks in the UK carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Other infectious diseases transmitted to humans from ticks include tick-borne encephalitis (TBE), which is quite common in some parts of Europe, and Crimean Congo haemorrhagic fever (CCHF).

Even if you are bitten by a tick carrying infectious bacteria, the chances of contracting an illness from a tick bite are not thought to be significant if the tick has not attached for a sufficiently long period of time - around 36 hours. A tick that has not attached or can easily be taken from the skin is extremely unlikely to have passed on any harmful infection. However, do speak to your doctor if you are concerned.

Do some areas pose higher risk?

Although ticks carrying Lyme disease bacteria may be present anywhere in the UK, the most common areas for Lyme disease infection are currently grass and woodlands in the south and north of England as well as the Scottish Highlands, according to Amuthan. While this small increased risk shouldn't put you off taking a stroll in these areas, it's advisable to check for ticks afterwards as a precaution.

Ticks can be picked up at any time of year. However, their population swells during the months between March and June, and again in August to November in the UK, so extra precautions may be advisable during these times.

How can I minimise the risk?

Simple precautions can minimise the risk of being bitten by a tick. For example, using an insect repellent and minimising the amount of exposed skin, particularly on the lower half of your body - wear trousers rather than shorts and tuck the end of your trouser legs into your socks to reduce the chance of a tick coming into contact with your skin. After spending time in a high-risk area check yourself, your pet, and your children for ticks.

What to do about a tick bite

While the risk of Lyme disease is small, if you have been bitten by a tick or develop a rash, it's important to seek medical treatment. If a doctor is concerned about a risk of Lyme disease, they will often offer antibiotics. These can treat Lyme disease and prevent further complications. Sometimes, a blood test will be offered - although due to the delay before results, antibiotics are often offered as a precaution until results are known.

"Lyme disease is best treated early. See your doctor if you have been bitten by a tick and develop a round rash or flu-like symptoms such as fever, aches, tiredness, or headache," says Amuthan.

Keep calm and carry on

The benefits to your health of walking, exploring nature, spending time outdoors or breathing fresh country air outweigh the tiny risk of being bitten by an infectious tick. However, knowing how to recognise, treat and minimise risk is important. Knowing how to tackle the problem if it occurs means you can go back to enjoying the great outdoors without additional worry.

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