Tackling Ticks

Tackling Ticks

Blood-sucking ticks can end up feasting in some pretty awkward spots — from your ear canal to your eyeball, not to mention your groin!

You’ll come across these tiny parasites — a type of arachnid related to mites — in many parts of Australia, particularly along the east coast.

They hang on blades of grass or other vegetation waving their outstretched legs, waiting to latch on to unsuspecting passers-by.

And they can make you really sick.

So before you panic, check out these top tips on ticks.

Quick tick facts

There are 70 species in Australia and at least 16 bite humans
All stages of life cycle can feed and you can be bitten any time of year
Ticks can be smaller than poppyseeds
Unless removed they can feed on you for around 3-7 days
Pets and native animals can carry ticks into your backyard

Why worry about ticks?

When a tick bites you, it stabs you with a barbed straw-like mouth part and squirts saliva into you.

This saliva contains toxins and other nasties that can cause a range of health issues.

Tick bites can lead to bacterial diseases like Queensland Tick Typhus and Flinders Island Spotted.

The east coast paralysis tick (Ixodes holocyclus) can cause paralysis, which is a relatively rare in humans. (Watch out for your pets though.)

Tick mouthparts are something to behold under the microscope. (Supplied: Sue Lindsay)

Far more common are allergic reactions to tick saliva. These can range from mild, where the bite gets red, swollen and inflamed, to life threatening anaphylaxis.

Ticks bites can also lead to Mammalian Meat Allergy (MMA), which means you can no longer eat red meat (including beef, lamb, pork or goat) or associated products, like gelatine. It may also mean that you are unable to have certain drugs or vaccines.

According to Tick Induced Allergies Research & Awareness (TiARA), Australia has the highest prevalence of MMA and tick anaphylaxis in the world.

To avoid getting ticks …

Wear light coloured clothing (to more easily see ticks) – permethrin-treated where possible
Wear long-sleeved shirt, long pants with pants tucked into socks
Wear a wide-brimmed hat
Use an insect repellent containing DEET
Before coming back inside brush your clothes to remove ticks
Check your body over for ticks

You’ve got a tick. Now what?

There’s conflicting advice about what you should do if you’ve been bitten by a tick.

What we do know, you need to avoid squeezing or disturbing it as this will likely cause it to squirt more allergens, toxins and pathogens into you.

Don’t:

scratch it
pull it out with your fingers
use a pin or match stick to pull it out
burn it
put chemicals like methylated spirits, nail polish, alcohol or petroleum jelly on it.

When full of blood the paralysis tick can over a centimetre big. (Supplied: Professor Stephen L. Doggett Westmead Hospital)

Some say pull it out

The traditional advice — including from the federal health department — is to pull it out with fine-tipped forceps tweezers (not the blunt household tweezers most of us use).

Grasp the tick close to its mouth parts near your skin’s surface, then gently pull upwards with steady pressure. Try to avoid jerking or twisting the tick.

In reality, this is quite difficult to do and is not recommended for those with a tick allergy.

Some say ‘freeze it’

But the advice from Australian allergy and emergency specialists is to kill it while it’s still attached to you.

They say using tweezers risks increases the chances you will inadvertently squeeze the tick, which means it will inject more saliva into you.

“Household tweezers are tick squeezers,” says Dr Sheryl van Nunen, who first discovered Mammalian Meat Allergy.

“Freeze it, don’t squeeze,” says Dr van Nunen.

The Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) recommends freezing the tick using an ether-containing spray — your pharmacist should be able to help you find these products.

After 5 minutes the tick should die and drop off. If it doesn’t drop off or you can’t freeze the tick, ASCIA says to seek medical help.

It’s worth noting: freezing can damage the skin in sensitive areas of the bodies, so be sure to follow the instructions.

Baby ticks are often too small to spray so the advice is to “dab it, don’t grab it” — dabbing the tiny ticks with permethrin-containing cream like that used to treat scabies.

Then you can brush them off or they will fall off naturally.

Why is this advice confusing?

Experts say there has been little research on Australian ticks and the health risks they pose. International research may not take into account the Australian situation.

A study released last year by Dr van Nunen and team adds weight to a growing consensus in Australia supporting the “kill-the-tick-in-place” approach.

The health department says it’s releasing an updated tick factsheet in early 2020 based on the latest evidence.

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What should you do if you think you’re allergic?

While there’s no test for tick allergy, if you have had an allergic reaction to ticks then you should definitely see your doctor.

For those known to have tick allergies, the health department and ASCIA advise going to a medical facility to have the tick removed.

And make sure you carry an EpiPen and use it immediately you notice any symptoms of anaphylaxis.

Allergy aside, always seek medical advice if you feel unwell following a tick bite.

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