Ticks and Lyme Disease | Staying Safe While Mountain Biking
Like all other areas of the Scotland, ticks are present in the Grampian region. Changes in farm practice, and global warming have both contributed to the increased prevalence of ticks in the grass areas, moors and woods of the north east. Below are some pointers that will help you learn about the dangers of ticks when cycling off road, how to avoid being bitten by ticks, how to safely remove ticks, and how to recognise the symptoms of Lyme disease.
What are Ticks?
Ticks are invertebrates related to spiders, mites and scorpions. There are many different species of tick living in Scotland. And while each prefers to feed on the blood of different mammal or bird hosts many are not over fussy, and will bite humans.
The tick most likely to bite humans in Scotland is the Sheep tick. The hedgehog tick, the rabbit tick, and the passerine tick (from birds) are also known to bite humans, but it appears you are less likely to encounter a bite from these.
Where are Ticks Found?
Ticks can be found in any place with moist air where they are protected from drying out, and they thrive in vegetation that retains a high humidity e.g. deciduous and coniferous woodland, heathland, moorland, rough pasture, forests and urban parks. Just the type of places we love to go mountain biking!
Why are Ticks a Problem?
Ticks can carry a number of diseases, the most well known being Lyme Disease. Other diseases include Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis, Rickettsiosis, and tick-borne Encephalitis virus - all of which are best avoided. And to really mess with your head, some ticks may carry more than one disease! Having said all that, not all ticks carry disease so don't freak out too much.
There are four stages to a tick’s life-cycle: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. During each of the larva, nymph, and adult stage they need a single large feed of blood to grow. It is during this feed that they can pass on infections. This photo shows a tick engorged with blood after feeding, and one before feeding. Gross!
Ticks cannot jump or fly, so when they are ready to feed they climb to the top of vegetation and wait for a passing animal or human, and hitch a ride. This explains why adults are most often bitten around the legs. The tick may not bite immediately, but will often spend some time finding a suitable site to bite. And this explains why ticks are often found behind the knee.
A tick bite is usually painless and most people will only know they have been bitten if they happen to see a feeding tick attached to them. And since a tick usually remains attached, unless disturbed, until it is gorged with blood it could be hanging onto you for up to a week. Once full, the tick lets go and drops off.
The risk of bacterial infections increases the longer the tick is attached, but can happen at any time during feeding. Viral infections can be passed immediately. As tick bites are often unnoticed, it may be difficult to determine how long it has been attached therefore all tick bites should be considered as posing a risk of infection.
Avoiding Tick Bites
Here are a few tips that may help you avoid being biten by ticks
- Consider wearing long sleeve tops, and long leggings. Admittedly this can be a bit uncomfortable in summer.
- Apply a repellent that repels ticks to all exposed skin before going out on your bike. See Dr Nicola Seal's repellent review for advice on which brands to consider.
- Keep to paths, tracks and trails and avoid long grass and areas of thick foliage
- Wear light coloured clothing so you can see the dark ticks. Each time you stop for a breather, or a drink have a quick look over your clothes and exposed skin and remove any ticks you see.
- Check yourself, or even better have someone else check you, for ticks when you get home. Be sure to check your hairline, navel, groin, arm pits, between toes, behind the ears and knees.
How to Remove a Tick
Your main aims are to remove the tick promptly, to remove all parts of the tick’s body and to prevent it releasing additional saliva or regurgitating its stomach contents into your bite wound. The best way to do this is to use a Tick Removal Tool, and follow the instructions that come with the tool.
The two most common types of removal tool are the hook type, and the loop type. These tools will grip the head of the tick without squashing the body, and are designed to be twisted to help removal. Tick hooks come in different sizes for different sizes of tick. Both types of tool only cost a few pounds. You can also get credit card sized removal tools that have an inbuilt magnifying glass - worth having one of these in your backpack when out on the trail.
After removing the tick, disinfect the bite site with an antiseptic wipe or wound wash and wash your hands with soap and water.
Do not try to burn the tick off, apply petroleum jelly, nail polish or any other chemical. These methods can cause discomfort to the tick, resulting in regurgitation, or saliva release into your body.
Amazon sell a selection of removal tools, as shown below:
Tick Removal Hooks
Tick Removal Lassos
Tick Removal Card
If You Become Unwell, or Notice a Rash Following a Tick Bite
The most likely infection you can get from a tick bite is Lyme disease. Lyme disease is notoriously difficult to diagnose as it can demonstrate different symptoms in different people and some of the symptoms are similar to other infections and illnesses.
Symptoms appear on average 14 days after the tick bite. However the incubation period may last between two days and 3½ months. The symptoms can change from day to day as well as over longer periods of time. They can start suddenly or develop slowly over time – some people report an initial flu-like illness followed by a period of wellness before a slow decline.
The commonest symptoms relate to the person feeling unwell, having flu-like symptoms, extreme tiredness, muscle and joint pain, muscle weakness, upset digestive system, headaches, neck stiffness, disturbances of the central nervous system and a poor sleep pattern.
In some, but not all cases an expanding rash appears on the skin, known as an EM rash. The rash comes in many forms and rarely do you see a "neat and tidy" bullseye rash. An EM rash won’t always have a central clearing, and may have a central blister. It isn’t usually hot, itchy or raised but some patients have reported experiencing these things.
If you experience any of the symptoms above after being bitten by a tick, then see your GP immediately and mention your concerns about Lyme disease. Treatment is with antibiotics and is most effective if started as early as possible in the disease.
Lyme Disease in Scotland
It is thought that about 5% of ticks in Scotland are infected with Borrelia, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Even with such a low number it is estimated that there are over 2,000 new cases of Lyme disease a year in Scotland. So it can not be considered "rare".
It has been claimed that the variant of Lyme disease found in Scotland is different to that found elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish variant seems to cause more neurological problems with symptoms ranging from stiff neck, severe headache, meningitis, temporary paralysis of the facial muscles (Bell’s Palsy), numbness and poor motor coordination.
Useful Links for Further Reading
Where to Mountain Bike
Whilst we can not guarantee that the wild mountain bike trails mentioned below are tick free they are definitely worth visiting.
Ben Aigan in the heart of Whisky country offers an exposed circular mountain bike trail which provides superb views over parts of the Spey Valley. Tough climbing in parts and free flowing descents.
Iconic Clachnaben offers a classic circular mountain bike trail which makes you feel as if you are truly remote. Grinding ascents, a technical and exposed rocky descent, fast flowing forest sections and gentle firebreak sections. Something for everyone.