What do they 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.
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 happen to spot it, or deliberately check your body looking for it.
As a human, you are more likely to be bitten by a nymph tick. These look like tiny black or brown specks, often the size of a poppy seed. This girl (below) 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:
Why are they dangerous?
At least 8 people in Britain catch Lyme disease from a tick bite every day, according to Public Health England. Ticks are almost certainly the most dangerous bugs 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-threatening and have lifelong after-effects.
Ticks are as harmful to pets as they are to humans, and dogs and cats are in fact more likely to be bitten by ticks. One out of every three dogs in Britain has a tick attached to it at any given time, according to a University of Bristol research team. Since one British household in 4 has a dog (according to the Pet Food Manufacturing Association‘s well-respected Pet Population Report) this means one house in 12 will have ticks brought indoors.
You may develop a reaction to a tick’s saliva, without catching a disease. An allergic reaction may cause the bite to appear red and raised and sometimes the site can be itchy.
A percentage of the ticks in Britain carry dangerous infections, however.
Tick borne diseases in Britain
– 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, bull’s-eye 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 is currently incurable. Pets as well as humans can suffer from Lyme disease. About 8 people in Britain catch Lyme disease every day.
– 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 and in fact, it is most common in dogs.
– Q fever: this is a very severe infection which in some cases can become a lifelong incurable illness. Its symptoms can include pneumonia, encephalitis and chronic, debilitating fatigue.
Lyme disease symptoms
A flat, red rash which progressively expands, called “erythema migrans”, is a common symptom of Lyme disease and unique to this infection. It is not particularly itchy and not painful. It spreads out and may have a central clearing, or rings like a target or a bull’s-eye, although different and less distinctive rashes are also common. On dark skin, erythema migrans tends to look similar to a bruise.
At least 1/3 of Lyme disease patients never develop a rash. (Source: Public Health England)
- Flu-like symptoms such as fever, swollen glands, night sweats and tiredness; these can be mild or very severe;
- Neck pain or stiffness;
- Joint or muscle pain; over time, joint infection can lead to arthritis in one or more joints;
- Memory problems or trouble concentrating; this is different from general absent-mindedness and can involve forgetting entire skill sets, people, or periods of time;
- Headache; this can take the form of cluster headaches which are present for days, weeks or longer;
- Numbness or paralysis in any part of your body, or tingling, pins and needles, twitching, or other strange neurological symptoms.
Some symptoms may be mild, others severe. People with Lyme disease have at least two of these symptoms, but usually more.
For more information on Lyme disease symptoms, visit Lyme Disease Symptoms
If you begin to feel after a tick bite, visit your doctor and explain when and where you were bitten by a tick.
How can I avoid them?
The tick breeding season starts in May, and you are at far greater risk of tick bites throughout the summer. However, stay alert to the possible presence of ticks all year round.
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 come across a tick in any region.
A: Try to avoid tick habitats
Ticks’ natural hosts are small mammals and birds such as mice, squirrels, pheasants and many other birds. Where you see these animals, there will probably be ticks.
Ticks 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
- Ticks cannot fly.
- They climb to the top ends of long grass or other leafy plants, and transfer onto passing animals or humans.
- They may be on the ground, in a grassy area you plan to sit on.
- Ticks love leaves, so promptly rake up any leaves that fall in your garden.
B: Repel ticks when you do go outside
- Wear clothes that cover your skin, especially your legs.
- Tuck clothes in. Always tuck trousers tightly into socks and boots.
- Wear light-coloured clothing, as this makes it easier to spot ticks while you are out and about.
- Repellent containing permethrin should be sprayed on your clothes (NOT your skin). This is more effective than using 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. Products containing permethrin can be ordered online from Amazon and other websites.
- Put down a picnic cloth or rug instead of sitting directly on the grass. It is not practical to spray insect repellent on your children every time they play in the garden, but it is easy to give them a blanket to sit or lie on.
- Insect repellent containing at least 20% 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 a tiny part which you may have missed in order to bite.
C: Check yourself for ticks and remove them promptly
After your children have played in the garden, or with pets, examine their skin for ticks.
- Ticks will walk long distances inside clothing until they find a suitable area of skin. Their aim is to remain attached, feeding on blood, for as long as possible.
- They particularly like the belly and groin area.
- Ticks near the hair line can easily be hidden.
- 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.
How to check your body for ticks video
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 straight away so that you don’t introduce any ticks into your home. If a tick drops off in your house, it can survive for weeks, waiting patiently for its next meal.
When camping, you need to take extra precautions:
– Remember to take a pair of pointed tweezers suitable for removing all kinds of ticks.
– 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?
It is important to reduce the risks of ticks attaching to your pets, both because pets can bring ticks into your house and close contact with people, and because of the risks to your pets’ health.
There are many different types of pet-specific products, aimed at repelling and/or killing ticks which try to attach to the pet. Some are available in shops and online, but others can only be obtained via a veterinary surgeon. Types of products include:
- Those which spread semi-permanent chemicals through the pet’s hair or layers just under the skin. These can be delivered by
- Spot-on products
- Oral chewable tablets (e.g.Fluralaner)
- Products applied on the coat each time the animal is taken out. These include sprays, powders and essential oils which work in a variety of ways to discourage ticks.
- Food supplements believed to make the animal distasteful to the ticks, such as herbal supplements and garlic.
- Miscellaneous products such as tags which claim to produce a protective shield around your pet.
Some products which are suitable for dogs are poisonous for cats so ensure you buy the right product for your animal.
It’s important to realise that none of these products is without disadvantages and the right answer will vary for different people in different circumstances – whether your animal swims regularly, whether you have children, or whether your pet has an individual sensitivity to the products. Pet-owners should discuss tick protection with their vet to assess which is the right method for them.
It is also important to note that very few of these methods are 100% reliable and pets should be checked regularly for attached ticks. Ticks prefer hidden places with thinner skin so remember to check the folds of your pet’s body, eyelids, gums (yes, really!), groin, ears and between the toes.
When removing ticks, do so carefully using an approved tool and method (see below). It is best to wear gloves while you do this.
What do you do if you get bitten?
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 ones used by dentists and you can buy them from eBay or Amazon. They are called cotton swab tweezers: choose a pair with the narrowest, sharpest tips you can find.
DO NOT try to remove a tick using normal tweezers, as you will simply squirt its infected stomach contents into your blood stream.
To safely remove a tick using pointed tweezers:
- Lift the tick away from the skin vertically and intact.
- Clean the area with alcohol disinfectant, or at least with soap and water.
- Stick the tick onto a piece of paper with sellotape, 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.
Safe tick removal video
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.
Do not try to remove a small tick nymph using a tick remover made for adult ticks.