Bushcraft | Wild Camping

Tick Bites & Lyme Disease – A Hiker’s Guide

The Thorough Guide To Tick Bites & Lyme Disease

Ticks can carry Borrelia, a bacteria that can cause Lyme Disease in humans. If a tick bites you and becomes embedded this article has everything you need to know and do for your best chance of being safe.

You might be surprised how many people get bitten by ticks each year but you’ll never find out, most of them won’t report it. You might be surprised how many people get lyme disease but the diagnosed cases are just part of the story. It is estimated that 300,000 people are affected each year in the US and 65,000 in Europe. It seems to me that most lyme will not get diagnosed, or will be diagnosed as something else (see below).

Let’s start with the beast that causes it all, a tiny 100 million year old spider like creature…

What is a tick?

A tick is an arachnid, it has 8 legs. A spider is an arachnid but an arachnid is not a spider. Scorpions and mites are also arachnids.

A tick crawls around on it’s 8 legs and as an ‘ectoparasite’ (external parasite) it feeds on the blood of mammals and birds. There are over 20 species of ticks in the UK, the US and many more worldwide.

Amazing tick evolution facts

The tick had evolved by the Cretaceous period. A 100 million year old fossil of a tick shows it was pretty much as it is now back then. ‘We’ weren’t even apes back then.

Borellia spirochete has been found in a tick fossil over 15 million years old. Homosapiens are only 200,000 years old, homoerectus only 5 million years old, imagine how complex and sophisticated Borellia is in affecting it’s host!

The tick’s life-cycle

Ticks start life as an egg then hatch into the larva stage. They are tiny, so small you could mistake them for a grain of sand, until they start crawling! The next stage is nymph. They feed once during each stage and live for about 2 years.

They’ll wait at the top of a blade of grass, cresting, their front legs pointing outwards, the claws waiting to latch onto something that smells tasty – they can sense the carbon dioxide mammals give off. They feed for 3-7 days then just fall off, fat, engorged. Then they chill and grow into adults when they’ll be a few millimeters long.

How do ticks affect humans?

Firstly, they bite. They’ll find a nice warm place out of the way, like your crotch and burrow their mouth parts into skin to get to your blood. They have barbs on their jaws which anchor them to their host, this is why they are so hard to remove. This is also why we must be careful when removing.

A tick bite can get infected so it must be treated with a disinfectant.

Most importantly, a tick can spread disease. Ticks can carry many diseases and transmit them to us when they bite us. Some have said that it takes 3 days from when they bite to transmission but this is NOT the case, it can be much sooner.

How do I know if I got bit by a tick?

Firstly, if the little bugger is still there you can see it’s rear end sticking out of the hole it’s burrowed! Maybe you can see it’s legs. Horrible I know but you have to know.

Ticks feed on our blood, when they’re full they drop off, this is generally thought to be about 3 days.

If you have been bitten by a tick and it has dropped off you may just about see a mark but you’re not to know even that it was a bite let alone identify it as a tick bite. If you see a red ring or patch around the bite then read on…

What to do if you are bitten by a tick.

If you are bitten by a tick you must remove it properly as described. Clean the wound with soapy water then apply a mild disinfectant or antibiotic cream, this will not kill any disease but will stop the wound from getting infected.

How do I remove a tick?

A tick’s jaws are barbed and they tick is well anchored to it’s host.

Don’t crush the tick. If you pull a tick off quickly it’s head can be left behind! Gross right? You should pull a tick gently, encouraging it to let go.

Pull it with tweezers or another proper tick removing device. I would say don’t twist the tick, I imagine this would only increase the chances of leaving part of it behind.

Some say to put Vaseline on a tick to suffocate it into letting go or burning it with a match head. If this makes the tick sick then it’s just more likely to transmit disease to you.

What is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease (borreliosis) is a bacterial infection caused by Borrelia. Borrelia is a germ, a bacteria, a pathogen which can reside in a tick’s mid-gut. When the tick feeds it transmits the bacteria into it’s host.

Lyme can be a debilitating disease with over 70 symptoms (see below).
Lyme disease was diagnosed as a separate condition in 1975 in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

What are the symptoms of Lyme Disease?

A red rash, a ‘bullseye’ (known as an EM or erythema migrans) or blotch around a tick bite is a good indicator that the borrelia bacteria has been transmitted from the tick. It’s said to be rare that this happens but I’ve been told by many people of debilitating illnesses after a tick bite and this should not be brushed aside. The EM is not always present.

There are many bacterial diseases such as Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis and Rickettsiosis but Lyme borreliosis is by far the most common in the UK.

Early symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache and feeling tired.

Here are some later symptoms of Lyme disease:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Sweats
  • Arthritis
  • Facial paralysis
  • Cchest pain
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Fatigue
  • Stiffness of neck
  • Upset stomach

The list goes on and on.

Note: Some people have an allergy to tick saliva, this obviously can cause a rash and other symptoms. You can even develop an allergy to red meat getting something called Alpha-Gal from the lonestar tick.

Can I get diagnosed and treated for Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease can be misdiagnosed as a number of illnesses – fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Crohn’s disease, HIV and other autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases.

Being diagnosed with Lyme can be tricky. The two most common tests are ‘Western Blot’ and ‘ELISA’. People have told me that their doctor has tested them a number of times with a negative result.

‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’
You need a doctor who’s interested.

Does taking antibiotics get rid of Lyme disease?
Borrelia is a very sophisticated bacteria, it can even take proteins from white blood cells and attach them to itself to fool us into missing it! Borrelia can even curl up (in cystic form), evading detection, fight off attack and survive for up to 4 weeks. What does this mean?

If you take a course of antibiotics for 2 weeks it may not kill borrelia and your Lyme disease will live on!

Natural treatments for relieving symptoms of and Lyme disease
Some non-prescriptive treatments can be used to improve the immune system and attack bacteria. I read of one claim that stevia kills lyme disease!

I’ll just list them though instead of going into how they work:

  • Fish oil
  • Grapefruit seep extract
  • Stevia leaf extract
  • Melatonin
  • Salt
  • Monolaurin (found in coconut oil)
  • Canabbis spp
  • Vitamins: C, E, zinc, copper, B complex
  • Herbs: Oregano, garlic, curcumin, basil, rosemary, thyme, ginger
  • ECGC (green tea)

What can I do to stop ticks biting me?

Here are some handy tips to follow to avoid tick bites:

  • Ticks ‘quest’ on bushes and long grass, waiting with their front legs stretched out to grab a hold on you. Stay out of grassy areas.
  • Wearing light coloured clothing would enable you to see them more easily.
  • Tucking your trousers into your socks might help stop them from getting to your skin.
  • Use insect repellent. Follow the instructions with permathrin and DEET-containing products as they can be very harmful on skin or on children.
  • Check yourself and children after a walk, especially those warm, dark places. If you are camping take a small mirror!
  • We give our dog a tablet periodically which kills ticks if they bite her. Deal with ticks on animals the same way as you would if removed from yourself or go to the vet who will easily remove them.

Some comments from members on my ‘Ultralight Backpacking’ and ‘214 – Walking The Wainwrights’ groups:

‘I got Lyme a few years ago on my very first backpacking trip. Easily the sickest I’ve ever been in my life.’

Sage

‘It’s not just Lyme disease you get from ticks. I had a disease called Erlychiosous that was caused by a tick bite. I’m talking 104 degree fevers.’

Robert

‘I’ve had lyme maybe 4 times (been treated atleast 6). I had no rash, no sign of it other than in the blood test. Basically now, I treat everything with permethrin and try to check for ticks more frequently.’

Austin

‘I got very sick and was diagnosed with late-onset Lyme disease (9 months after my hike). I couldn’t walk for a month.’

Missplaced

‘Spray permethrin on your clothes, tent, and backpack, and deet or picardin on your skin and you should be good to go.’

Marty

I might also say that you could bath in peppermint and teatree, I’ve heard a few people say this works but I got some Permethrin from Sawyer a year ago. I can’t find it anymore on Amazon but Lifesystems do a an effective spray here for about a tenner. When you spray it on your clothing, bag, etc, it lasts a good while, 6 washes or so.

I include a short talk on ticks and lyme disease at the beginning of all my Navigation Workshops, Wild Camping Workshops and group walks.

I hope you never really need this information.

If you have any questions or comments please feel free to comment below.

Photos from Wikipedia, the drawing is my own.

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