Everything you need to know about ticks

Tick next to a match head
Here are our top tips for avoiding tick bites when out and about. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Woodlands are full of fascinating creatures, but the tick is one minibeast that’s best avoided.

Ticks are small, blood-sucking arachnids that attach themselves to animals and humans. They can pass on the bacterial infection, Lyme disease, which is unfortunately on the increase in the UK and needs treatment with antibiotics. But don’t panic! A few simple steps can reduce the risks.

What do ticks look like?

There are about 20 different types of tick. They look a bit like tiny spiders and can be reddish, dark brown or black. They’re usually about the size of a sesame seed (1-3mm), but after feeding they can swell to the size of a coffee bean.

Where do ticks live?

Ticks like to live in areas of dense vegetation, so woodlands are a favourite habitat. They can’t fly so attach themselves to their host as they brush past long grass and other plants.

They’re found all over the UK, but are most common in these areas: the New Forest, Exmoor, the South Downs, Thetford Forest, the Lake District, the North Yorkshire Moors, and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

How do I avoid ticks?

  • Keep to footpaths and avoid long grass
  • Wear long-sleeved tops and tuck trousers into socks. Ticks can get on your clothes so wearing light colours will make it easier to spot them
  • Use insect repellent on exposed skin. Check the label to make sure it’s effective against ticks and ask a pharmacist for advice before using repellent on babies and small children. Always apply repellent after sunscreen, not before
  • While you’re out, have a quick look for ticks when you stop for a breather. Bites don’t hurt so it’s easy for them to go unnoticed. Remember to check your child’s head and scalp. Check thoroughly when you get home, perhaps at bath time
  • Check dogs too as they can carry ticks in their fur

I’ve found a tick. What should I do?

You should remove a tick as soon as possible to cut the risk of infection. Here’s how:

  • Use fine-tipped tweezers (not the blunt tweezers you use to pluck eyebrows). You can buy suitable tweezers, as well as special tick removers, from most pharmacies
  • Grip the tick gently by the head, as close to the skin as possible, and pull steadily away. Don’t twist, or crush the tick by gripping its body with the tweezers. Avoid touching it with your hands
  • Don’t use the old methods of tick removal, such as burning it with a match, or smothering it with petroleum jelly. These can cause the tick to release harmful saliva
  • Afterwards, you should wash the area with soap and water, or use a sanitising wipe. Then apply some antiseptic. If you’ve touched the tick, you should wash your hands
  • Wrap it in tissue paper and put it in a bin so it can’t attach to someone else 

What symptoms should I look out for?

Although Lyme disease is unlikely, you should still be aware of the symptoms. If it’s not treated, it can lead to ongoing problems, such as inflammation in joints and the nervous system.

Symptoms of Lyme disease usually appear between three days and one month after infection. Look out for a circular rash around the bite, a bit like a bullseye. However, not everyone gets a rash and you should also watch out for a flu-like illness, with fever, headache, tiredness and general aches and pains.

If you notice any of these symptoms, you should see your GP straight away for a test. It’s easily treated with a course of antibiotics.

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