How to avoid tick bites and what to do if you get bitten

Ticks aren't just gross - they can also carry dangerous diseases that could affect people and animals. Beth Rowland explains how to avoid tick bites and how to remove them if you do get bitten. 

American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis) on human skin.

How to avoid tick bites and how to remove them if you do get bitten

Ticks are so small that they can be mistaken for a freckle, but they can cause Lyme disease, which affects both humans and animals and can be fatal in the worst cases. Here’s how to spot ticks, how best to remove them, and what to look out for if you think you might have caught an infection.

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Facts about ticks

1. Ticks are parasitic arachnids and can often be mistaken for very small spiders.

2. Before they have fed on the blood of their host, ticks are so tiny they can be mistaken for a speck of dirt or a poppy seed.

3. A tick remains attached to their host for approximately five days while feeding. After feeding, adult ticks become lighter in colour and can be the size of a small pea.

4. Tick bites are not usually painful, as a tick’s saliva contains anaesthetic.

5. Ticks usually live in woodland and heath areas, and like warmer and wetter weather conditions.

6. The increase in wild deer numbers has also contributed to a rise in the number of ticks, as they like to live on the skin of wild deer.

7. Not all ticks are infected, but the most common disease caused by a tick is Lyme disease, which can be fatal in the worst cases.

8. In 2013, there were 1,200 confirmed cases of Lyme disease – a sharp increase from only approximately 200 cases per year in the late 1990s.

9. A tick bite looks like a pink or red circular ‘bull’s-eye’ rash that develops around the area of the bite.

10. Other noticeable signs of infection are flu-like symptoms and fatigue.

11. Lyme Disease is treatable with antibiotics if diagnosed early, but if left untreated, neurological problems and joint pain can develop months or even years later.

12. It is worth noting that symptoms of Lyme Disease can take between three days to six weeks to appear after a tick bite.

13. Another disease common in dogs is ehrlichiosis, which can cause weight loss, anemia, neurological problems and fever symptoms in chronic cases. Humans can contract ehrlichiosis, but it’s extremely rare. 

How to avoid and treat tick bites

As ticks are more common in woodland and heath areas, consider avoiding those when out walking. If you can, walk on paths, avoiding long grass or verges.

Wearing light-coloured clothing will help you easily see ticks. Using repellent is also advised. Popular choices are DEET and Permethrin, a clothing-only repellent that kills ticks on contact.

Dog walkers are advised to check their pets regularly, as Lyme disease can be just as dangerous to dogs as it is to humans. Watch out for red, inflamed, irritated patches of skin on your dog.

Gardeners can prevent the spread of ticks in their garden by keeping lawns short and raking up leaf litter. Creating a buffer zone between habitats that ticks like and your lawn with wood chips and gravel.

To remove a tick from yourself or your pet, use fine-tipped tweezers or a tick-removal tool, not your fingers.

Pull the head of the tick firmly and steadily, without twisting it, as this could increase the risk of infection or some of the tick being left behind.

It is important to properly deal with the site of the tick after it has been removed. Apply antiseptic and beware of a rash.

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If you can, keep the tick in a sealed jar. That way, if you or your pet develops an infection, you can take the tick, to the doctor or vet and they can test the tick for disease.