Ticks and the dangers of Lyme disease.
In the months following that trip, Tony began to have difficulty with physical activity; his heart was tested and a cardiogram revealed no heart defect. In March 2014 Tony tested positive for Lyme disease and he died from heart failure shortly afterwards.
Tony's family are keen to share their fathers story to raise awareness of ticks and Lyme disease and highlight that it may not be obvious that you have Lyme disease and it may be difficult to diagnose and treat.
Their advice is simple: if you work or play in the Scottish countryside and you get a rash near a tick bite or begin to feel unwell following a tick bite, please consult your GP.
What are ticks?
Ticks are small, blood-sucking arthropods related to spiders. There are many different species of tick living in Britain, each preferring to feed on the blood of different animal hosts. If given the opportunity, some of them will feed on human blood too. The one most likely to bite humans in Britain is the Sheep tick. Despite its name, the sheep tick will feed from a wide variety of mammals and birds. Bites from other ticks are possible, including from the hedgehog tick, and the fox or badger tick.
There are four stages to a tick's life-cycle: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. Larvae, nymphs and adults all only feed once in each stage. The whole life cycle lasts around two years.
To the naked eye the larvae (with six legs) look like specks of soot, while nymphs are slightly larger, pinhead or poppy seed size. With their eight legs, nymphs and adult ticks resemble small spiders. It is the nymph which is most likely to bite you.
Where are you likely to come across them?
Ticks are found throughout Scotland but have a preference for humid, damp environments so thrive in greater numbers in areas of moderate to high rainfall with dense vegetation. This would include woodland/forestry, heathland, moorland and rough pasture.
Why are ticks a problem?
Ticks carry a disease called Lyme disease, (Lyme is a small town in Connecticut where the first cases of this disease were diagnosed). Lyme disease is transmitted to humans following the bite of a tick. Only some ticks carry the infection. The risk of the infection being transferred from the tick is greater the longer the tick remains attached and if you remove it within 24 hours you may well avoid infection even if the tick carries Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is increasing dramatically and it appears that there has been around a tenfold increase in cases of Lyme disease in the past ten years in Scotland. Many cases are treated by GPs with antibiotics on the basis of the initial symptoms and without doing the diagnostic blood tests, as the blood tests are not reliable and early antibiotics are important.
The National Lyme testing laboratory in Inverness was set up in 2003 in response to the increasing number of cases. The lab monitors the number of positive blood samples sent there and, for Highland region alone (which is the worst affected area), recent figures are around 150 new cases per year. However, it is believed that only around 20% of cases being seen by a GP have a blood test and therefore the actual numbers could be five times higher.
How can I prevent being infected with Lyme disease?
The best way of preventing Lyme disease is to avoid being bitten by a tick in the first place. In humans this is simply achieved by ensuring that exposed skin which may come into contact with vegetation is kept covered. Long trousers should be tucked into socks and long sleeves worn. Clothing should be checked regularly and any ticks on it brushed off. An insect repellent may also be used. It is also well worth being vigilant and checking yourself carefully when returning from a trip into potential tick terrain.
How do I remove a tick?
There are a lot of old wives' tales on the removal of ticks including setting light to them! The most reliable and effective method is to purchase a 'tick-hook' and keep this in your first aid kit. Tick hooks are available at most outdoor retailers and include instructions for safe removal of a tick on the packaging.
What are the commonest symptoms at the onset of Lyme disease?
The first indication that you may have contracted Lyme disease may be the development of a rash which occurs in approximately 75% of cases. Rashes may develop between three and 36 days after an infected bite. Rashes may take on a variety of forms and the classic Lyme 'bulls-eye rash only occurs in approximately 20% of cases. If not treated promptly with antibiotics further symptoms may develop, including feeling unwell, flu-like symptoms, headache, stiff neck, muscle pain and increased sensitivity to temperature, sound and light. Lyme disease can later progress to involve joints and the internal organs.
If you have any concerns at all, visit your GP and explain that you have recently been in a potential tick habitat even if you have not seen any signs of a tick bite.
Further information and downloadable information leaflets can be seen at both the following websites
Also check out the MCofS YouTube video about ticks, how to deal with them and how to avoid them, at http://www.mcofs.org.uk/hillwalking-essentials-video.asp
With thanks to Dr Duncan Gray & Dr Roger Evans for their support with this article.
by Heather Morning, Mountain Safety Adviser with the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. Heather delves into the less attractive side of our outdoor adventures