Tony Jackson’s Country Casebook

Tony Jackson

Tony Jackson - Credit: Archant

This month our columnist warns of a tiny invader which could cause us long term health problems…and offers some expert advice on how to best ward it off

Look out, there’s a tick about! It’s that time of the year when walkers, ramblers and anyone taking time off in the countryside is at potential risk of contracting Lyme disease, a particularly unpleasant tick-borne infection which is becoming increasingly common. First diagnosed in the early 1970s amongst children living in Lyme, Connecticut, a mysterious group of rheumatoid arthritis cases in the area was eventually pinned down to deer ticks attaching themselves to children playing in wooded areas.

Today, the disease has become a source of considerable concern here in the United Kingdom, and particularly in “hot-spot” areas of the South West. Typically, the first symptom of Lyme disease is a rash which starts as a red spot where a tick has bitten, and increases in size over days to form a circular or oval-shaped rash. The rash is often accompanied by headaches, extreme tiredness, muscle weakness, joint pain and disturbed sleep. There can be sensitivity to sound and light levels and the symptoms may last for a considerable period or may come and go.

This can be a devastating disease, as I well know. A friend who suffered from Lyme disease was, for a decade constantly weary, had no energy and the symptoms baffled his GP. It was not until further tests were made that it was discovered he was suffering from the disease. Someone else whom I knew was so devastated by the illness that he eventually took his own life.

So how is the disease caused? First, one must understand that not all ticks carry the disease and only a few will carry the infection. The ticks themselves are tiny and their bite is painless. Clinging to grasses, they wait for a host to pass by and on to which they can cling. Often this will be a deer or sheep, though dogs and, of course humans with exposed flesh, are all susceptible.

You may not even notice you are acting as a blood donor to a tick for several days, by which time the little brute will have gorged on blood so that its body becomes inflated and pale in colour.

Let’s be clear on one thing. The majority of people bitten by a tick do not experience disease symptoms, nevertheless there are around 500 confirmed cases each year in Britain and it is believed that up to 2,000 new cases may occur, though they are not attributed to the disease.

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Walkers wearing shorts and with exposed bare legs are particularly at risk as they swish through grasses or brush up against tree trunks or shady areas of foliage. The only protection, boring though it may be, is to wear long trousers and light coloured clothing, as ticks can then be readily spotted. You can also spray your clothing with an effective anti-tick pesticide and it is also worth checking dogs for the little nasties when you return home.

If you do discover a tick clinging to you, then use a proprietary tick removal tool which will grip the tick’s head. The object is to remove the entire beastie in one movement, to prevent it regurgitating its stomach contents or saliva into the wound. Clean the bite site and tweezers with antiseptic before and after removal. Never crush the tick’s body or use your finger-nails to try and remove it. Burning it will cause the creature to infect the bite.

As a deer stalker I am all too well aware that the roe deer in our areas tend to be highly susceptible to ticks and I take every precaution when dealing with an animal. Ticks, as I know all too well, have a propensity to depart with Houdini-like skill from their host, when one is dressing the animal, to the warm-blooded operator, a facility which demands an after-check!

The likelihood of your being bitten by an infected tick is relatively small, but it’s well worth being aware of this countryside risk and of the symptoms of what can be an extremely unpleasant disease.