In the words of Sun Tzu, it’s always wise to “know thy enemy”. And these little blood-sucking, bacteria and disease-carrying monsters we call ticks are public enemy number one in the eyes of many outdoor enthusiasts.
Since we can neither ignore them nor get rid of them, we should instead put ourselves in their disgusting little shoes and view the world from their point of view. A heart for ticks, huh? Well, we wouldn’t want to go that far. We just want to know more about who the beasts are so that we can better understand why they like to pester us as much as they do. In a perfect world, maybe, just maybe, we could even distract them in some way, shape or form so that we’re not as interesting to them.
What are ticks?
What the tiny, eight-legged arachnids look like is no mystery. Neither is the fact that they are extremely tough and resilient. Ticks can easily reach an age of 9 years, some even 20! They seem virtually indestructible, just like their similarly disgusting and despised colleagues, the cockroaches.
With approximately 900 different species, the tick is an arachnid and constitutes the subclass Acari, along with mites. The blood of animals and humans is their favourite food… Fortunately, the little droplet of blood we lose isn’t really a big deal in the grand scheme of things and the bite itself is hardly noticeable. But, we still fear ticks about as much as we fear scorpions and snakes. We will go into detail on this a little later, but first let’s have a look at their behaviour, range and habitat.
It is often said that ticks drop from trees and land on their victims. But that’s not true. Fortunately for us, such purposeful tick base jumps are very rare, if they happen at all. Ticks actually prefer to wait on blades of grass, in plants and hedges at a height of up to 1.5 metres. Then, when we brush past, the tick clings to us.
Most tick species, like the widespread castor bean tick, are passive watchers and hardly ever move of their own volition. Only certain types, like the brown dog tick, actively search for a host, moving approximately 5-8m per hour.
Ticks are aided in their search for food by their ability to detect vibrations, changes in light and substances that a potential victim emits, breathes and sweats out. They often crawl around on the skin of humans or animals for up to several hours at a time until they have found a warm, moist feeding spot with a good supply of blood. In humans, ticks seem to prefer the back of the knee, armpits, neckline, groin area, navel or the thin skin behind the ears.
When the tick bites, it releases saliva into the wound to inhibit blood clotting and the pain felt by the animal or human being. Thus, the victim often notices nothing at all. As silent as the dead, the tick then lingers there until it has basically gorged itself with the host’s blood and grown multiple times its normal size. Then, it lets itself just fall off the body of the host. The whole thing seems pretty grotesque and excessive by human standards, doesn’t it? Well, the tick is more of an occasional drinker and not a full-on drunk. Only three times in its life does the tick need to refill: in its developmental stages as larva (here the tick is most dangerous because it is very small and extremely hard to see), as a nymph and as a full-grown tick. Some tick species can even survive up to 5 years without a “meal”!
Range and habitat
Ticks are – unfortunately – distributed all over the world. In Germany (especially in southern Germany’s damp forests and meadows) there are very favourable conditions.
Tick season in Germany and the UK is from March to October, but if the winter is mild it can go even longer. And, in extreme cases, tick season may last all year. Many tick species can also survive frost for several days without being harmed.
Why are ticks dangerous?
It’s no big secret: The danger of the tick lies in the diseases it transmits. Among all parasitic animal groups, ticks are among the most important vectors of pathogens. Relatively large numbers of people are regularly infected with various diseases as a result of tick bites.
The tick’s saliva can transmit bacteria, viruses and other pathogens into the human blood and, in rare cases, even trigger allergic reactions. If you squeeze the tick when trying to pull it out, the even less appetizing vomit from the digestive tract of the tick can get into your blood as well. Yuck.
On that note, let’s move on to some information about possible diseases and preventive measures. Because medical topics are complex, tricky and sometimes contain far less reliable knowledge than it appears at first glance, we’d just like to start by saying that we cannot guarantee the accuracy of all information provided here.
What diseases can be transmitted by ticks?
The diseases most commonly transmitted to humans are tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) and Lyme disease. There are also a number of other possible diseases. You can find out more by clicking on this link (in German only).
The dreaded viral disease initially causes flu-like symptoms before triggering swelling of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms are headaches, dizziness and later paralysis, which can become life-threatening. There is no conventional medical intervention to treat TBE, but there is a vaccine. Fortunately, the probability of infection is relatively low:
“Even in TBE-prone areas, according to the Robert Koch Institute, only up to an average of 3.4 percent of all ticks carry the virus.“
But, that doesn’t mean that three out of every hundred tick bites will lead to infection, because not every infected tick transmits the disease to humans.
This similarly feared “multi-systemic infectious disease” is caused by the bacterial species borrelia. Because several of the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease are often found in other conditions, diagnosis can be difficult, to say the least.
Apparently, the disease hasn’t been around for that long and there’s even a conspiracy theory surrounding its mysterious origins. The first cases were observed in 1975 near the town of Lyme, Connecticut, USA, so that’s why the disease is also known as Lyme borreliosis or Lyme disease.
In contrast to TBE, there are neither typical high-risk areas nor vaccinations for Lyme disease, but there are better treatment options. Lyme disease pathogens are more widespread: in tick strongholds such as the German states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, more than 50% of ticks are said to be infected. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that every infected tick transmits the disease. According to studies, “only” 5% of people bitten by ticks actually have a Lyme disease infection. But, this still amounts to a lot of cases in Germany (depending on the source, about 60,000 to 160,000 people). When reading numbers like this, it’s important to keep in mind that there is a high number of unreported cases as well because, as already mentioned, many symptoms are not classified as infections from ticks.
Symptoms, severity and course of the disease do not follow a particular pattern, but are different in each person. Frequently, people have flu-like symptoms in the beginning, such as dizziness, joint and muscle pain and/or gastrointestinal problems. As the infection progresses, almost anything can happen, including everything from heart problems to changes in personality.
In the acute stage, similar to TBE, paralysis might even occur, among other things. These symptoms can sometimes lead to physicians misdiagnosing the disease as polio, which is considered incurable, thus rendering the case hopeless.
Migrating redness: The red ring
The following statement is something we hear and read quite often: a red ring or circle around a tick bite is an early symptom of Lyme disease. So, does that mean that if you don’t see a ring, you’re in the clear? That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, there are also cases where no such redness is observed in the early stages of the disease. In other words, no redness is definitely a good sign, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in the clear.
Here’s some good news: you can do something against the disease-causing arachnids, and if scaring them off doesn’t work, you can defend yourself. Even though there are some tips for pets too, we’re going to focus on our fellow human outdoor enthusiasts.
Our motto for prevention is “become unattractive“. We don’t want those bloodsuckers even thinking about coming after us.
When reading about how to avoid ticks, experts often recommend avoiding high grass and bushes. While this is indeed good advice, you may as well say all outdoor enthusiasts should just stay home. It is much more realistic to recommend we remain vigilant in potentially tick-ridden areas and regularly check ourselves for ticks. And, it is best to do so during your trip, not afterwards, because the sooner these nasty bloodsuckers are found, the better.
The simplest thing you can do to reduce the risk of ticks clinging to your skin is to wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers and seal yourself up from head to toe. Light-coloured clothing is great as well because it makes ticks easier to find.
This sounds much easier in theory than it is in practice, because to keep ticks out, you basically have to seal yourself up like an astronaut. Why? Well, when they’re looking for a meal, ticks manage to find even the smallest cracks and the tiniest holes. But, in all honesty, who in their right might would want to wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers with socks pulled over the trouser legs in the middle of summer? Not I! Be that as it may, if the weather is right, it’s definitely a good idea to keep your skin covered up as much as possible. On his website trekkingguide.de, the professional outdoorsmen Andreas Happpe recommends some clothes that protect against ticks (German only).
Always good: be as healthy as possible
A generally good state of health may also be an effective form of tick prevention. A nurse once told me that healthy people are supposedly less attractive to ticks. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s consistent with my own experience. Granted, this little piece of advice is purely speculative, but you can never go wrong with trying to stay healthy, right?
There is a large selection of repellents and sprays designed to provide protection from ticks. However, only a small handful of them appear to be truly reliable. Plus, you have to reapply the products every 1-3 hours. When you think about how much you’d end up applying over the course of a day, it’s probably best not to picture all the stuff that gets into the blood through the skin… It’s no wonder they recommend washing the stuff off as soon as you get home. But, as long as you don’t use the stuff too often and only on smaller, exposed areas of the skin, it’s not a big deal. After all, having some chemicals in your blood is probably better than TBE or Lyme disease, wouldn’t you think?
Vaccination: only for TBE
Should you get vaccinated to eliminate the potential horrors of being infected with an untreatable disease called TBE? Personally, I think that this is only worth considering if you’re a real tick magnet and frequently travel through woods and meadows.
Natural remedies: black cumin oil and coconut oil
A Bavarian high school student called Alexander Betz recently discovered that black cumin oil could be used as a tick repellent. He had mixed the oil into his dog’s food to improve his allergies, but soon noticed the dog no longer had any ticks. Betz then looked into it and found that it was indeed the oil that had repelled the ticks. In 2014, he even received a prize for the experiment from “Jugend forscht” (Youth research).
Another quite effective anti-tick home remedy is natural coconut oil. One of the fatty acids it contains, lauric acid, has a strong repellent effect against ticks. This effect was also only recently “discovered”:
“Employees at the FU Berlin (Hilker, Kahl and Dautel) recently discovered the repellent effect of lauric acid on ticks. In laboratory tests, they proved that between 81 and 100% of the ticks in the experiment basically ran for the hills due to a solution containing 10% lauric acid. When the solution was applied to the skin of the subjects, as much as 88% of the ticks were repelled. (…)This remained effective for six hours. Lauric acid is thus effective for a significantly longer time than other substances.“
The effect of the oils are supposed to be better, the more natural, i.e. the more “organic” they are. Of course, you can never expect to be 100% protected from using gentle home remedies. On the plus side, though, they do have positive, nourishing “side effects” in addition to their tick repellence. The biggest “disadvantage” to these remedies, though, is that they are not exactly cheap, especially if you use them religiously. Of course, you could say the same about chemical repellents, which don’t work perfectly either.
There are many other alternative methods, but their effectiveness is debatable.
Got bitten anyway: Defensive countermeasures
If you’ve got one or more ticks, despite all your precautions, you have to get them out as soon as possible. You can do this with your fingers or fingernails only at the very beginning when the tick has just scratched the surface. Otherwise, you will usually find that it is difficult or impossible to get them all them all the way out. But, even in the early stages of the bite, it is better to use the appropriate tools. Otherwise, you might accidentally squeeze the tick with your fingers, and this could lead to it emptying its stomach contents and pathogens into the wound. And, we don’t want that. For the same reason, neither burning nor drizzling oil on it is recommended, either.
Instead, you should carefully pull the tick out with tweezers or even better using a special tick remover until it lets go. The fine-tipped tool grabs hold of the tick as close as possible to the skin of the victim. There are various tick removers, including tick hooks, tick tweezers, tick loops, whole tick multisets and even electric tongs with lethal electric shocks for the ticks.
If you want to be absolutely certain that the tick is not infected, keep the tick you removed and have it tested for pathogens in a lab. Note down the time and place and, if possible, disinfect the feeding spot. Bagging and taking the corpus delicti with you is also recommended for insurance purposes.
Infected or not?
Using simple test sets, which you can buy for as little as 10€, you can also test ticks for Lyme disease from your home. As a layperson, this may sound convenient, but it’s not very reliable. If you want to be on the safe side, you better fork out the extra money and pay approximately 30€ for a laboratory test. There is no do-it-yourself quick test for TBE, but there are laboratory tests, which are not much more expensive than those for Lyme disease.
If you notice early signs of the disease or are experiencing constant discomfort, you should not play around with tests – seek medical attention immediately. As general rule, if you have unusual symptoms, it’s always a good idea to remain open to the possibility that you were bitten by a tick, even if didn’t notice or can’t remember.
As with so many conditions, the more you look into tick-caused diseases, the more complex and “blurred” the situation becomes. A little reading is not enough to really judge the (in)effectiveness of prevention and treatment methods.
The best way to illustrate the problem is antibiotics: many media reports continue to present antibiotics as a safe and fast cure for Lyme disease. However, more and more physicians are beginning to point out that there is often a rather unfavourable ratio of desired effects to side effects. In fact, when it comes to Lyme disease, especially in advanced stages, antibiotics tend to weaken the immune system instead of the disease. Thus, it’s better not to rely on antibiotics doing the trick if you haven’t taken prevention and defence seriously. The best of tick repellent of all is and remains your own vigilance!