Ticks and Lyme disease: what to do about tick bites

Posted by Peter Burnside on 01/08/2018
Be careful of ticks this summer. Photo: Shutterstock / Heiko Barth

Nasty critters that latch onto you, nobody likes coming home to find a tick with its head buried in your skin. So with cases of Lyme disease increasing in Europe, make sure you know what to do to prevent tick bites and how to safely remove ticks that are already attached.

What are ticks?

Ticks are small arachnids that live by feeding on the blood of animals, particularly mammals, and can range in size from smaller than a poppy seed up to that of a pea, depending on the stage in its lifecycle and/or how engorged it is on blood. While a tick bite is itself generally harmless, they unfortunately are capable of transmitting diseases to humans, some of which can be extremely debilitating and life-threatening.

What diseases can ticks carry?

Three of the diseases that can be caught from a tick bite in Britain are:

Lyme borreliosis
More commonly known as Lyme disease, this disorder is caused by the bacteria called Borrelia Burgdorferi (Bb), and is carried by many infected ticks in popular UK and European walking and climbing areas. Fortunately not all ticks carry it and simply being bitten by a tick does not instantly mean you’ll contract Lyme disease – swift and proper removal is key to minimising risk of infection. The classic symptom of Lyme disease is a bull’s eye rash (erythema migrans) and shows up as a red ring of inflammation that gradually spreads out across the skin, often with a fading centre. It can appear from two to 40 days after infection; if you develop one be sure to photograph it to show your doctor. Not all infected people develop the rash, so be vigilant for other early symptoms that may develop, such as: feelings of tiredness, flu-like symptoms like chills, fever, headache, muscle and/or joint pain, swollen lymph glands, or blurred vision. Later stage symptoms include: arthritis in large joints, nerve problems such as numbness, facial palsy, meningitis with fever, stiff neck, and severe headache, memory problems and sometimes irregularities of the heart rhythm.


The classic bull's eye rash symptom of Lyme disease. Photo: Shutterstock / Jerry Callaghan

Babesiosis
Caused by the Babesia parasite, a protozoan organism similar to the malaria parasite, this organism attacks red blood cells and requires laboratory identification to diagnose infection. The most common symptoms are fever and anaemia, also tiredness, loss of appetite, and generally feeling unwell. Symptoms usually develop one to four weeks after a tick bite.

Ehrlichiosis
A bacterial disease that infects and kills white blood cells, diagnosis of the disease can be tricky and usually is based on symptoms coupled with evidence of tick exposure. Symptoms can develop anywhere between four days to 16 days after a bite and the most common are fever, headache, tiredness, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, and some will develop a rash.

Another disease carried by ticks in Europe is Tick Borne Encephalitis (TBE) – a serious viral disease that can affect the central nervous system/brain. Ticks carrying the disease are often found in rural or forested areas in parts of Europe from late spring until early autumn. Early symptoms include flu-like illness and fever from six to 14 days after being bitten. Later symptoms will follow after a period of no symptoms, and may manifest as neck stiffness, severe headaches, photophobia, and signs of meningitis such as delirium or paralysis.

WATCH: Ticks and how to deal with them on BMC TV

How to prevent tick bites

Prevention is always better than cure, so be sure to take steps to keep ticks at bay rather than having to remove a tick later. Tips to avoid tick bites are:

  • Walk in the middle of paths and avoid unnecessarily walking through bushy vegetation or long grass.
  • Avoid damp/boggy areas and especially refrain from lying down or resting in such areas. Ticks require humid conditions to survive during their off-host periods.
  • Cover up your limbs – trousers, socks, long sleeves. Light coloured material also helps spot ticks that are on you.
  • Use insect repellent. DEET products are the most effective but also the most toxic. Apply the repellent to your clothing instead of your skin to reduce side effects.
  • Check yourself, your buddy, and your pets every few hours. Remember, depending on the season, some ticks are no bigger than a pinhead. Brush your clothes and your pets off before returning home.

How to remove a tick safely


Tick removal tools. Photo: Shutterstock / Astrid Gast

Don’t stress the tick is the key thing to do when trying to remove one as a stressed tick often regurgitates into your bloodstream which increases the chance of infection. So never use fire, never try to freeze the tick off, don’t try to suffocate it with ointment or oil, and be careful if trying to remove a tick with tweezers – squeezing its body instead of its mouthparts can cause regurgitation or even leave the tick’s head embedded in your skin.

The longer a tick is left to feed the higher the chances of infection, so swift and proper removal is very important. So, what should you do?

Tick removal tools
The best and easiest way is to use a specialised tick removal tool. There are many different types available online; some use a v-slot style of removal, while others are tweezer tools with fine needles to grab the head of the tick. If the tool uses a twisting type of removal, be sure to only twist in one direction. Read the instructions on how to properly use the tool you end up choosing.

Tweezer removal
If trying to remove a tick with a pair of tweezers, try to find some that have a narrow point rather than the broad tipped tweezers for plucking eyebrows as these can often grab more than just the head of the tick. Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull upwards steadily until the tick is removed.

Be sure not to twist or jerk the tick, as its mouthparts may be left embedded in your skin. Don’t squeeze or grasp the body of the tick as this can cause it to regurgitate into your bloodstream or onto your skin. After successfully removing a tick, wash the area with warm soapy water and antiseptic, and be sure to wash your hands after as well. Check your body thoroughly for other ticks and be vigilant for any symptoms of infection.

Hope for the future: Lyme disease vaccine

Valneva, a French drug manufacturing company, announced in May 2018 that it had completed its first successful human trial of a vaccine against Lyme disease. In trials, the vaccine was found to be between 71.4% and 96.4% effective, and works by kickstarting the immune system into producing antibodies to fight the bacteria that causes the disease. No significant side effects are associated with it so far and its reported that the vaccine might soon be made available in the UK through the NHS for adults and children as young as two.

More information:

Download an information leaflet about ticks (pdf)

Public Health England information issued April 2013

Download ‘Protect yourself from TBE in Europe’ (pdf)


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