What does it look like?
Ticks are arachnids (related to spiders). They have eight legs, and look like spiders with unusually large bodies. Ticks have four stages in their lifecycle.
As a human, you would be more likely to be bitten by a nymph tick. They are tiny black or brown specs the size of a poppy seed. This girl (above) has a tick attached behind her ear, near the hairline. You would have to look carefully to see that it isn’t just a freckle or a speck of dirt.
Adult ticks tend to bite furry animals such as your dog or cat. Before feeding they are small and black or brown, but after feeding their abdomen bloats to the size of a pea or a baked bean, and turns a creamy white colour. Here is a fully engorged adult tick:
Tick bites aren’t painful and in many cases they are not itchy either, so you will be unlikely to realise you have been bitten by a tick unless you check visually and see it.
Why is it dangerous?
Ticks are probably the most dangerous animals in the UK. You are more likely to get bitten by a tick than by a venomous snake, and the illnesses they spread can sometimes become life-altering.
Diseases spread by ticks in the UK, some of which are extremely dangerous and can be very difficult to cure, include:
- Lyme disease – this bacterial infection often causes non-specific symptoms like severe flu, but this can progress to debilitating pains and weakness and can also sometimes cause facial paralysis, septic arthritis, and life-threatening heart conditions. It sometimes causes a ring-like rash at the site of the bite and must be treated promptly with antibiotics. It can be difficult to cure and in some people leads to a lifelong illness which is poorly understood and not currently curable. Pets as well as humans can suffer from Lyme disease.
- Anaplasmosis/Erlichiosis – this bacterial infection can suppress the immune system by reducing the number of certain types of white blood cells that the body produces. It can cause a large range of symptoms, some of which are severely debilitating. Pets as well as humans can suffer from erlichiosis, in fact it is most common in dogs.
- Babesiosis – this parasite attacks the red blood cells and gradually causes severe debilitation and can lead to liver and spleen disease. It can be difficult to cure.
The above diseases can be serious if the person is not treated very promptly.
You may develop a reaction to a tick’s saliva, without catching a disease. These bites are red and raised and sometimes itchy.
Not all ticks do transmit diseases. If they do, some physical signs may be:
- an erythema migrans rash which indicates Lyme disease, or
- This is a classic bull’s eye rash, but many people have less distinctive rashes
- a black mark (called tache noir) and, later, red spots all over, which indicates rickettsia or Mediterranean Spotted Fever (this sometimes fatal disease occurs in continental Europe, especially the Mediterranean, but not in the UK), or
- red marks, that look like stretch marks but which are not accompanied by weight gain and sometimes run in the “wrong” direction across or around the body, which indicate bartonella.
If you develop one of these rashes, take photographs of it so that you can show them to a specialist later if necessary, and so that you can show the development/progress of the rash to your doctor.
Not all patients have these rashes. If you have no visible symptoms, there is still a possibility that you could have an infection. If you begin to feel ill with what doctors call “non-specific symptoms” (which means symptoms that could be caused by lots of different illnesses, such as fever, swollen glands, body aches, headache etc.) then visit your doctor and explain when and where you were bitten by a tick.
How can I avoid it?
Where there are animals, there are ticks. Their natural hosts are the small mammals which live on the ground, such as mice and squirrels. They typically climb to the tops of long grass or other leafy plants, around knee height, waiting for a passing warm-blooded creature to catch onto.
Their habitats include:
- leafy countryside
- urban parks and gardens
Some areas in the UK have very high tick populations, but our information on this is scanty and may be unreliable; it is safest to assume you could meet a tick in any region.
The tick breeding season is in May, and you are at far greater risk of tick bites throughout the summer. However the tick breeding season appears to be elongating, possibly because of global warming. We have received reports of people who have been bitten by ticks in the autumn and spring, so our advice is to stay alert to the possible presence of ticks all year round.
- Ticks cannot fly, but they are extremely good at waiting on plants and catching onto animals and humans which brush against them.
- They climb to the top ends of long grass, or other leafy plants, waiting for warm-blooded passers by. This is called “questing”.
- They may be on the ground in some grass you decide to sit on.
- Ticks love leaves, so promptly rake up leaves that fall in your garden.
- Wear clothes that cover your skin, especially your legs.
- Tuck clothes in and, in particular, tuck trousers tightly into socks or boots.
- Repellent containing permethrin should be sprayed on your clothes (NOT your skin). Tick removal experts say this is far more effective than using any insect repellent on your skin. Some camping shops sell clothes impregnated with permethrin, which lasts up to 20 washes before needing to be re-treated.
- After a walk in the countryside, throw your clothes into the tumble dryer for 15 minutes to kill any ticks that may be on them. Do this before flopping into an armchair for a little rest, or you may scatter ticks around your home. If a tick drops off in your house it can stay in some nook or cranny of the sofa or carpet for weeks, waiting patiently for the chance to crawl onto its next meal.
You may also consider the following while at home or in countryside nearby:
- Put down a picnic cloth instead of sitting directly on the grass when having a picnic. Some British parks are severely tick infested.
- It is not practical to spray insect repellent on your children every time they play in the garden, but it is easy to provide them with a picnic blanket to sit or lie on instead of the grass.
- Insect repellent containing DEET can be sprayed directly onto the skin. It can be used safely on any part of the body except the face. For children who are likely to roll on grass, it is worth covering the back of the neck as well. Deet is a less effective protection than permethrin. Tick removal experts have told us that ticks will crawl long distances over skin coated in deet until they find one tiny part which you missed, and then sink their feeding parts into that spot.
- Encourage your children to watch while you check your dog or cat for ticks so that they learn to recognise them, and to tell you if they spot one on the family pet. This will help to protect both pets and children.
Insect repellents containing both permethrin and deet can be ordered online from Amazon and other websites.
When camping, you need to take extra precautions:
- Remember to take a pair of pointed tweezers suitable for removing all kinds of ticks (see below).
- Take alcohol disinfectant to clean any area of skin you may remove a tick from.
- Spray the entire groundsheet and tent with permethrin.
- Have a “tick buddy” and regularly check each other for ticks in places that you cannot see, particularly behind the ears, on the back of the neck etc. See below for where to look for ticks.
- Check your groin and abdomen regularly, as ticks will crawl long distances inside your clothing to reach this soft warm area. Males need to check their genitals, as ticks often attach here and may go unnoticed for a long time.
- Wear light coloured clothes, including pyjamas, which will make it easier to see ticks.
- Take a camping seat or at least a blanket to sit on, instead of sitting on grass.
- Wash absolutely everything when you get home, or at least give it a blast in the tumble dryer: You do NOT want to bring ticks home as your holiday souvenir.
How can I prevent ticks attaching to my pet?
Pet-specific products are available online and in pharmacies. There are sprays and collars.
We have received feedback on a number of instances of dogs and cats carrying ticks despite wearing tick repellent collars, and online product reviews seem to confirm that this can happen. We believe that insect repellent sprays for pets are the more effective choice.
Please remember that tick protection products for pets should be backed up with daily checks to visually examine your pet for ticks. If you find a tick attached to your pet, remove and save it and do not hesitate to take your pet to the vet if he appears to be unwell.
- After your children have played in the garden, or with pets, examine their skin.
- Ticks will walk long distances inside clothing until they find an area of skin they like. Their aim is to remain attached, feeding on blood, for as long as possible. They like the belly and groin area. Ticks near the hair line can easily be hidden. However, they will attach anywhere if necessary.
- Use a product with at least 20% DEET or higher on both skin and clothing.
- Apply permethrin to clothing, hiking boots, tents, and camp chairs.
- Wear light-coloured clothing.
- Wear long pants, and tuck them into your socks.
- Outfit yourself in bug repellent apparel.
- Stay on the trail.
- Avoid tick-infested places.
- Be vigilant-do a daily tick check.
- Put your clothes in the dryer, and tumble them on high heat
- Check your pets and your kids before letting them loose in the house.
What do you do if you get bitten?
There is a shocking amount of misinformation about tick removal online.
- DO NOT do any of the following: burn the tick, smother the tick in Vaseline, nail varnish or any other substance; rub around it with a cotton bud; squeeze the tick; try to twist or rotate it; stick tape over it; or generally hurt or harass it in any way while attached. This will simply make it spew the contents of its gut directly into your blood stream, which may include any of 16 different diseases.
- Also, do not try to remove a small tick nymph using a tick remover made for adult ticks.
If you find a tick attached, you need to remove the entire tick without leaving the feeding parts behind.
How do I correctly remove a tick nymph?
The only way to remove a tick nymph is using a pair of sharp, pointed tweezers. (You can also remove adult ticks by this method).
- Suitable tweezers are used by dentists and you can buy them from Ebay or Amazon. They are called cotton swab tweezers: make sure you choose a pair with the narrowest, sharpest tips you can find as they will need to close together around the tick’s feeding parts, underneath the body of the tick.
- The best available tick removing tweezers, and the only ones designed specifically for the purpose of removing ticks, are called Tick Ease and can be ordered online from the United States.
To safely remove a tick using pointed tweezers:
- Lift the tick away from the skin vertically and intact.
- Then clean the area with alcohol disinfectant.
- Stick the tick onto a piece of paper with sellotape. Do this without touching the tick. You may wish to show this to your doctor so he/she can ascertain that it was indeed a tick that bit you.
How can I remove an adult tick safely?
- You can use the same tweezers and the same technique as for removing tick nymphs.
- Alternatively, you can buy a specially made tick remover online or from a pharmacy or vet, which will lever the animal out vertically.
- These take various forms, all of which involve a slot which you slide under the tick, to then lift it out vertically. When you see the size of the notch and the thickness of the plastic it is easy to realise why these cannot be used to remove tick nymphs.