Tips for Backpackers and Travellers to Avoid Ticks and Lyme Disease

Would you know how to remove a tick? Did you know that the old wives’ tales for removing them should be avoided? Never attempt to burn them off, crush them with your fingers, cover them with petroleum jelly or apply any other chemicals. These methods may actually heighten the risk of infection by causing the tick to produce excess saliva or vomit into the wound! Yes… Yuk!

A tick will remove itself from your body once it is engorged with your blood by simply falling off, but this process can take several hours or even days. As revolting as this subject is, it should give backpackers, travellers, and even those who think they are safe pottering in the garden, the urge to read on…

This article is not intended to cause alarm, but to heighten awareness of ticks and the potential for catching the diseases they carry. Fresh air and exercise is good for us, so the outdoors should not be avoided because of the fear of catching something or getting bitten. However, it is better to avoid the bite than deal with possible consequences like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (U.S.) or other tick-borne illnesses.

Ticks resemble tiny spiders. There are several types of ticks and the diseases they carry depend on the geographical location. Ticks are reported to be the next most prolific spreader of disease after the mosquito. Although mainly inhabiting woodland areas, they are also found in our gardens and city parks. They are most active in warm weather but are present all year (even in Britain). Lyme disease is common across the United States, often transmitted by deer ticks, with thousands of cases reported each year. It is not as well known in the U.K., but many will be surprised to learn that hundreds of cases are reported each year. Lyme disease is also found in Europe, especially Scandinavian countries, as well as in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Cases have been reported in many other parts of the world, including Australia, S. Africa, China, Japan, and the former Soviet Union.

A tick bite does not automatically mean it will always result in Lyme or any other disease. Not all ticks carry the disease but, unfortunately, some ticks are capable of carrying more than one disease. Those who are bitten and infected do not always experience symptoms, and often are not even aware they have been bitten, so the disease can be hard to pin down.

Successful diagnosis may hinge upon relating it to a bite – which is why awareness and knowledge is so important. The tick will latch onto you any way it can, but its favourite spots to feed are the neck, head, armpits, back of the knees, groin and navel areas. Taking a photo of any rash that develops at the site of the bite before it disappears can help convince doctors to take symptoms seriously. Many victims remain undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed because doctors are not well educated about tick bites and Lyme disease. It’s often up to the patient to be pro-active and pursue it by informing the doctor that they have been bitten and requesting tests and treatment.

Tips to avoid encounters with ticks:

  • Wear light coloured clothing and long sleeves.
  • Tuck trouser legs into socks and shirt into trousers.
  • Wear shoes or boots rather than open sandals.
  • Check yourself after sitting on grass or logs, brushing past branches or leaning against tree trunks.
  • Use a light-coloured picnic blanket to easily spot ticks and other insects.
  • Inspect outdoor pets regularly for ticks and keep them off furniture.
  • Arrange with travel companions to check each other for signs of ticks (or use a mirror to check the parts you can’t see).
  • Use insect repellents effective against ticks.
  • Check clothing and shoes before entering your car or home.

Education is vital in avoiding and removing ticks. Know the correct method for removing them from the skin, preferably with tweezers or a special removal tool. Keep the tick so that it can be examined if symptoms occur. If head or mouth parts of the tick break off under the skin during removal they must also be taken out or medical help obtained as this can heighten the chance of infection.

If symptoms occur following a bite, antibiotic treatment should begin as quickly as possible. Symptoms of Lyme disease might include skin rash, headache, fatigue, fever, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph glands. Left untreated the disease may spread to other parts of the body and cause chronic problems.

Apologies to the squeamish and arachnophobic who now have one more thing to worry about! A vaccine against Lyme disease is not available at the time of writing, so backpackers, hikers and campers should be especially vigilant. It is hoped that this information will remind lovers of the outdoors to take extra care and avoid unwanted close encounters of the buggy kind.

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