We all love getting outdoors and the benefits of doing so are well documented: greater mental well-being, better sleep, healthier body all over.
However, we do share our outdoors with a number of pests – and ticks are one of them. These little critters are on the rise in the UK. It’s been estimated by Richard Wall, Professor of Zoology at Bristol University, that there are now as many as 20 ticks in every square metre of woodland, though this is an average, with none in some areas and up to 100 in others!
The number of annual cases is tiny in proportion to the population, but people who spend a lot of time in woodland areas are at a much greater risk, so it's worth being aware of the risks and how to try and avoid ticks.
What and where are ticks?
Ticks are little pests that live in the grass and vegetation. They grab onto you when you ride through long grass – a bit like lice, they feed on your blood (bit gross, we know). In doing so, they can pass on their diseases.
They carry with them diseases, particularly Lyme disease, which is a form of arthritis which results in chronic fatigue and joint pain. The disease is treatable with antibiotics if caught early, which makes detecting ticks all the more crucial.
The UK sees around 2-3,000 new cases of Lyme disease a year – only 15% of which occur when people are abroad. Locations that have been reported to have a high population of ticks include:
- the New Forest and other rural areas of Hampshire
- the South Downs
- parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire
- parts of Surrey and West Sussex
- Thetford Forest in Norfolk
- the Lake District
- the North York Moors
- the Scottish Highlands
Do remember that not all ticks carry the bacteria, so don’t worry that you’ve got Lyme disease just because you’ve been bitten, just be aware and remember that early treatment greatly increases the chance of a positive response.
Symptoms and Treatment
The first symptoms are usually a distinctive, circular rash, much like a bull’s eye, around the bite – this pops up 3-30 days after the bite, however, 1 in 3 people will never get a rash.
Later symptoms include fatigue, pain and swelling of the joints, nervous symptom problems such as numbness, and inflammation around the spinal cord.
Of course, fatigue and inflammation may just be the result of a good ride – so please try not to panic if you’re feeling these, just take yourself to your GP if you think you may have been bitten and the symptoms are worrying you.
If your GP thinks you have Lyme disease, you’ll have some blood tests, and will be given a course of antibiotics. This could simply be a 2-4 week course, though if the condition is discovered late, it can become more lengthy and serious.
How to avoid being bitten and what to do if you are
Of course, prevention is much better than cure, and there are a few ways you can make sure you don’t become lunch for any disease-ridden ticks:
Avoid long grass and vegetation
Ticks cannot fly, jump, or run – they’re pretty useless, basically. They sit in the grass and on leaves, waiting for someone to pass by so they can cling on. Riding in the centre of trails where possible, and avoiding sections of long grass will help you avoid them.
If you stop for a snack break on your ride, look for a bench or a log and check your legs and arms before you move off to make sure it’s just your ride buddy joining you.
Cover up or use insect repellent
Ideally, you should cover your skin with long trousers and sleeves – but though that advice might work in winter, you probably don’t want to be shredding trails in a boiler suit under the sun.
We wouldn’t advise you do, either – but covering exposed skin with insect repellent is a good idea, as is wearing light coloured clothing, so ticks are easy to spot so you don’t give them a free ride to your home.
Your likelihood of developing an illness from a tick goes up dramatically after it’s been on your skin for 24 hours. After a ride, check your skin, and the skin of your children or trail dog if applicable, for any ticks. They look like this:
If you do find one, remove it by gently grabbing it as close to your skin as possible, ideally with a pair of tweezers. Pull away from the skin, without twisting or crushing the tick and wash your skin afterwards, then apply an antiseptic to the area.
It might be a good idea to nip to your GP, too, for a blood test – as early detection usually makes treatment much simpler.
Above all, remember that 2-3,000 cases a year is a TINY percentage of the people out about being active in the UK, so go out, enjoy the trails, but just be aware of the little creatures and keep them at bay!