After returning from the USA, exploring and camping out on the banks of the Rio Grande, I felt a few niggles in my abdomen so I visited the doc. Imagine my surprise when he extracted a tick, hidden in my belly button!
The doctor was concerned when I told him where I'd been. Thoughts of lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Fever didn’t enthrall me either, and with the tick in a jar for identification, I was sent off for a blood test and to meet with the head of the department for infectious diseases in Melbourne at the Monash Medical Centre.
A short course of antibiotics followed, backed up by a script for a longer course in case I developed any symptoms such as a rash or fever during the following week or so while out in the bush.
That got me thinking about ticks in Australia and how common and how bad (or not) they are. Over the years I've taken ticks off dogs and a couple off myself, but none had been in place as long as this latest little blood sucker. In fact, the little bugger wasn't so little by the time he was removed!
Of the 800 or so species of ticks found around the world, 70 are found in Australia and just 16 species are reported to feed on humans.
Most tick bites here in Oz pose no great medical problem but in some rare cases people can experience tick paralysis or allergic reactions including anaphylactic shock. The most important tick in Australia as far as humans are concerned is the paralysis tick (Ixodes holocyclus). More than 95 per cent of tick bites and most tick-borne diseases in eastern Australia are due to this species of 8-legged arthropod. They also knock dogs around severely, so take care of your four-legged mate.
The paralysis tick has not been recorded in SA, NT or WA but there’s another species which can also cause paralysis in SA, NSW, Vic and Tassie. It seems WA misses out on the worst of these blood suckers.
Paralysis ticks are not very mobile but will perch on a piece of grass or bush, normally within 50cm of the ground, waiting for an animal or human to pass by. Once on a prospective host they may walk up the body and attach to the head area -- or a belly button!
Early symptoms of tick paralysis may include rashes, headache and fever and while tick paralysis is rare, children are more susceptible compared to adults. Allergic reactions can also result in swelling of the throat, and may lead to breathing difficulties or collapse.
Serious tick-borne diseases occurring in Australia also include the Queensland tick typhus and Flinders Island spotted fever. Other serious illnesses, such as lyme disease, may be caused by exposure to Australian ticks, but this hasn't been recorded so far.
So what's the best way to avoid becoming tick fodder? Before entering possible tick-infested areas, wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants tucked into socks and light coloured clothing to make it easier to see ticks before they attach to the skin. And apply an insect repellent containing DEET to your skin and the clothing.
If one does attach, the latest recommended way to remove it is with the use of fine-tipped forceps that allow you to grip the tick as close as possible to your skin, i.e., around the head. It’s vital not to squeeze the tick’s body as that will increase the chances of it injecting more toxin into you. You’ll need to apply steady pressure to remove the tick and you may be surprised at just how much pressure you’ll need. They do hang on! Once the tick has been removed, apply some antiseptic to the bite area. For those who are allergic, have an 'Action Plan' and carry an EpiPen.