Roz has experienced just how bad a tick bite can be. Here’s why tick bites are serious, and how to prevent them.
I began my bushwalking days in Tasmania where the only things I had to worry about were snakes and jack jumper ants. After moving to Queensland I discovered some tiny critters that can make you very sick.
Most bushwalkers and campers have their own tick stories. Some people pick them up on every trip while others never get any.
Ticks live in a large variety of habitats in the humid coastal areas of Eastern Australia, especially in wet sclerophyll forests and temperate rainforest areas.
There are over 70 native and introduced tick species in Australia, but the one that gives us the most problems is the Australian Paralysis Tick (Ixodes holocyclus), which is a parasite to native animals, livestock, pets and people. You can pick up a tick any time of year, but they become more active in warmer months.
I’ve only ever had two tick bites in my life, but the recent second one changed my life.
The First Bite
I got the first one many years ago when I lived in Townsville. I picked it up in the rainforest at Mt Spec on a weekend, but didn’t discover it until several days later. I woke up and felt something pulling my hair and when my husband looked he said I had a tick burrowed into my head. He got it out with tweezers, but my face gradually swelled up until I could hardly open my eyes.
We drove to my GP, who I knew well because I worked with her at the hospital when she was a Registrar. When I took my sunglasses off she burst out laughing. I looked terrible. She gave me an injection, I think it was probably an antihistamine like Phenergan.
The swelling went down and life became normal again. Over the years I’ve bushwalked in many tick-infested areas but until recently, I never got another tick.
The Bite That Stopped Steaks
I went on a weekend bushwalk in a private property, near Lamington National Park late last year. We stayed in beautiful cottages and on the Saturday we walked into the national park to a beautiful high waterfall. It was off track with lots of scrub bashing and climbing over and under logs and trees.
After we got back to our cottage I had a hot shower… and I felt something in the rim of my right ear. I asked one of the women to have a look and she said it was what I suspected, a tick. I did have some ‘wart off’ in my first aid kit to freeze ticks before pulling them off, but I was afraid to use it in case it got into my ear canal, so I got the woman to pull it off with tweezers.
The side of my face swelled up over the next few days but it settled down and I didn’t need medical help this time.
A few weeks later I was on another weekend bushwalk at Mapleton on the Sunshine Coast.
After our walk, we went for dinner at the Mapleton Hotel. I had a lovely meal of roast lamb and vegetables and wine. I went to sleep in my tent but woke after a couple of hours. I was itchy all over my body. I could feel welts. I shone my torch and discovered that I was covered in hives. I remembered an episode of Catalyst that I’d seen on the ABC a few years before about meat allergies caused by tick bites and wondered if that was the cause.
I had never had any allergies before.
I waited about three weeks without eating any red meat, then one night I had a small amount of spaghetti bolognaise. When I woke next morning I had itchy arms and hives on both arms. It wasn’t as bad as the previous time but it was still obvious.
I made an appointment to see my GP and I told him about the tick and meat allergies. He agreed to do the Alpha-Gal test but I got the feeling he wasn’t convinced. When I returned for the results he looked very surprised and he told me I was strongly positive. I was his first patient with the condition.
I’m very careful on bushwalks now to avoid ticks. I wear a long-sleeved permethrin-impregnated shirt, a hat and put Bushman’s around my socks and on any exposed skin. Here’s how you can avoid tick bites this season.
Prevention of Tick bites
The best method to avoid ticks is to stay away from known tick-infested areas, but as bushwalkers that’s pretty difficult!
Here are some other things you can do to prevent tick bites:
- Wear light coloured clothing so you can see the ticks crawling around before they latch onto you
- Wear long trousers tucked into socks
- Wear a long-sleeved shirt tucked into your pants
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat
- Use permethrin-treated clothing when exposed to tick habitat or gardening in tick endemic areas
- Apply insect repellant containing DEET or Picaridin to all exposed skin (Rid, Bushman’s, Tropical Aerogard)
- Spray shoes and boots and clothing
- Reapply insect repellant every couple of hours
When You Get Home
- Brush clothing before coming inside to remove ticks
- Put all your clothing into a hot dryer for 20 minutes on return home to kill any ticks
- Search your body and head thoroughly after retuning home for any ticks. They can wander around for up to several hours before attaching
- Search for ticks on children and pets after visiting bushland
- Try not to disturb the tick or scratch it as the tick will inject saliva into your skin
- The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology recommends killing an adult tick in place by using an ether containing spray, then letting the dead tick drop off.
- Department of Health recommends removal of the tick using fine-tipped forceps (not household tweezers), by grasping the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. Pull upwards with steady pressure to avoid jerking or twisting the tick.
- Larval and nymph ticks can be killed by applying a permethrin-based cream such as Lyclear used for scabies.
- Seek medical help if you have any allergic response to the tick bite.
Known Tick Diseases
Australian Tick Typhus
Seen along the coastal strip of eastern Australia from North Queensland to Victoria. Rickettsial infection presents as fever, lethargy, anorexia, arthralgia (pain in joints), generalised rash and a plaque with eschar (dead tissue that eventually sloughs off healthy skin) at the original tick bite site). Symptoms occur 2-14 days after the tick bite and requires prompt treatment with doxycycline.
Flinders Island Spotted Fever
Seen in Victoria, Tasmania and Flinders Island in the Bass Strait and caused by a bacteria known as Rickettsia honei and symptoms are similar to Australian tick typhus.
Mammalian Meat Allergy
This condition is becoming more common and was first identified in Australia in 2007 by Professor Sheryl van Nunen from Sydney.
Ticks native to Australia don’t carry the specific species of Borrelia that causes Lyme disease in other countries. It’s a known risk for overseas travellers, so it’s worth being aware if you’re travelling to tick-prone areas.
The Australian Government Department of Health knows that many Australians who are experiencing chronic, debilitating symptoms which many associate with a tick bite. There’s currently a lack of evidence on the cause and origin of this condition, so the Government has chosen to describe this patient group as having Debilitating Symptom Complexes Attributed to Ticks (DSCATT).
Tick Allergy and tick anaphylaxis
Some people are just plain allergic to ticks, like people are to bee stings. If you’re worried that this is you, it’s worth getting tested before you get caught-out somewhere wild and far from help.
Feel free to share your own tick stories below so we can increase awareness of ticks and the associated problems.