Tick bites – how to prevent and deal with them

For Tick Bite Prevention Week, a team of tick-borne virus researchers (Alexandra Wilson, Mazigh Fares and Benjamin Brennan) explain how walkers can prevent tick bites and what to do if you are bitten.

With the days getting warmer and the hope of COVID-19 restrictions starting to ease, we are all looking forward to a hike in beautiful Scottish landscapes. Unfortunately, the spring weather is also ideal for an unwanted hiking companion: ticks.

These arachnids are widespread in humid and warmer climates and they hide in high grass waiting for an unlucky host to pass them by. A tick’s relationship with their animal or human hosts is very one sided. Ticks are ectoparasites, meaning they live on the outside of their host and feed by biting through the skin to take a blood meal. They can stay attached for up to ten days before falling off and moving to the next stage of their lifecycle.

If being bitten by a tick and potentially carrying it for up to several days wasn’t bad enough, the tick may be carrying an array of pathogens that could make you ill. There are a few well known pathogens that can be transmitted by ticks: some are bacterial (such as Borrelia which causes Lyme disease) and others are parasites (Babesia).

What is less well known is that ticks can also carry viruses. These viral diseases can be deadly to humans and/ or animals: Powassan virus, Louping-ill virus, Dabie bandavirus, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus and tick-borne encephalitis virus to name a few. In recent years, there have been reports of these tick-carried viruses moving a bit too close to home. For example, in 2019 the UK saw its first confirmed case of tick-borne encephalitis.

We want to stress this should not stop you from going outside and enjoying walks and hikes when it is safe and permitted to do so. However, we believe it’s always better to be cautious. Here are some precautions you can take to reduce the risk of being bitten and gaining an unwanted companion:

  • Wear long trousers and tuck them into your socks.
  • Stick to clear paths or low grass fields whenever possible.
  • Wear light-coloured clothing so ticks are easier to spot and brush off.
  • Thoroughly check yourself for attached ticks at the end of the day.
Tick engorged with blood after a few days attached – ones you are likely to find on clothing or your body after a walk will be much smaller

If you are bitten, don’t panic. You can get tick removing tools from a variety of places: vets, pet and outdoor shops and online. In a pinch tweezers will also do, although fine-tipped tweezers are preferred as you want something that will remove the tick rather than squishing it.

The faster a tick is removed, the lower the risk of being infected by whatever it was carrying. If in doubt, talk to your GP. When using the tick removing tool, follow the instructions supplied. If using tweezers, grip the tick as close to the skin as possible to ensure the tick’s mouth isn’t left behind and pull steadily away from the skin.

Check the bite to make sure all the tick was removed. Wash the bite site then apply an antiseptic cream to the skin around the bite. If you want to go the extra step, you can submerge the tick in rubbing alcohol and store in a container for future identification.

If there are bits of the tick you cannot remove yourself, or if you develop a circular red rash or flu-like symptoms – feeling hot and shivery, headaches, aching muscles or feeling sick in the month after you are bitten – go and see your doctor or GP as these could be symptoms of Lyme disease.

Bet those midges don’t seem so bothersome now, do they?

Later this year, the researchers from the University of Glasgow are hoping to launch a Citizen Science programme in Scotland aimed at raising awareness of tick-borne viral disease. They hope to engage with the public and help them learn about other diseases transmitted by ticks. As part of this engagement, they will use public input to receive data on tick activity across communities in Scotland and ultimately discover what other pathogens these ticks may be hiding!

Link to Brennan Lab Research Group: https://www.brennanlab.co.uk/

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.