Ticks and People in the Australian Bush

Ticks and People in the Australian Bush

Story by Blair Paterson

The mere mention of ticks is a daunting and off-putting subject for many bushwalkers, campers and people undertaking activities in the Australian bush. There is no denying ticks are annoying pests but we need not be discouraged. If we understand the risks about how to reduce and manage tick encounters and treat bites correctly when they occur our bush experiences will be less compromised.

The purpose of this article is to produce a comprehensive factsheet about ticks to equip Outdoor Types who have or may become exposed to ticks whilst on their adventures. Topics addressed include ticks’ complex lifecycle and range, their affect on humans, common misnomers and FAQs, management and prevention, and discussion about correct removal of embedded ticks.

Paralysis Tick

Tick lifecycle and habitat

Ticks are bloodsucking external parasites of the order Aracina, which also contain mites. There are approximately 75 species endemic to Australia; many more have been introduced since colonisation. Ticks are divided into two families: hard ticks (Family oxodidae) and soft ticks (Family argasidae) [1].

The most important tick species in regards to public health in New South Wales is the Paralysis tick (Ixodes holocyclus) [2] (Figure 1). The Paralysis tick, a hard tick, is found along the eastern coastal strip of Australia and about 30 kilometres inland. This region is densely populated by humans too, where encounters are commonplace.

Paralysis tick habitat comprises of moist, humid, bushy areas such as wet sclerophyll forests and temperate rainforests [3].

The lifecycle of a tick involves four stages and three feeds of blood (Figure 2):

Tick Lifecycle

Female adults lay up to 3,000 eggs in leaf litter on forest floors. The six-legged larvae hatch after 40-60 days requiring their first bloodmeal to moult into eight-legged nymphs. Very few ticks survive beyond the larval stage, dying of desiccation while waiting for this meal [4]. Ticks require a second bloodmeal to moult from nymphs into adults. After a third and final bloodmeal they mate, lay eggs and die.

Female ticks feed from hosts for each of their three stages while males only feed for the first two, requiring a host during their adult stage to seek an attached female in order to mate [5].

In search for a host – usually a native animal such as a bandicoot, but also humans – ticks display behaviour known as ‘questing’, where they climb up vegetation such as a blade of grass or a fern frond and extend their front legs in wait to latch onto a passing animal.

A Tick’s lifecycle takes about a year, with Paralysis tick encounters prevalent as larvae through autumn, as nymphs through winter and as adults through spring and summer.

Tick / human contact

Paralysis ticks secrete a neurotoxin in their saliva which is associated with progressive and sometimes fatal paralysis, particularly for pets [6]. Symptoms of paralysis include dizziness, unsteady gait, nausea, headache, rashes, weak limbs, fever, and tenderness of lymph nodes. Symptoms may continue once the engorged tick is removed.

The advent of modern antitoxins has prevented fatalities in recent times, yet hospitals still admit several paralysis casualties each year, particularly of young children [3]. Bites are rarely fatal; 20 tick fatalities were recorded in NSW last century [7].

Other tick-related diseases such as Tick typhus and Lyme disease are rare in Australia. Allergic reactions are more common, however, with symptoms being local irritations, where itchy, inflamed or swollen skin may persist for up to ten days.

In late summer and early autumn, bites or irritations may appear on the skin without sight of a tick. This could be a larval tick which is relatively small, transparent and has likely been unknowingly scratched off by the host. The irritation is often known as ‘scrub-itch’ [4].

Ticks are known to crawl over a prospective host for up to two hours before attaching. Contrary to popular belief they do not drop onto hosts from overhanging branches. Instead they climb to quest on vegetation no higher than about 50cm, then onto a host and upwards to find a suitable place to attach.

The most common yet not exclusive places where ticks are found attached to humans are the head, neck, behind the ears and in hairy areas. Along with their elongated rod-like mouth structure (hypostome, Figure 3) which plunges into the skin, some species also use saliva to bond the palps to the skin of their host [1].

Tick Mouthparts

Tick prevention and management

The Paralysis tick season is most prevalent over spring and summer when adults are questing for hosts. As a poisonous animal they should be considered an environmental factor by those assessing hazards before entering infested areas [8]. Some suggested risk management measures are as follows:

  • Where possible avoid venturing into tick infested areas;
  • Wear light-coloured clothes – ticks are easily seen and brushed off before they attach; for extra protection wear long pants with legs tucked into socks, and shirts with long sleeves;
  • Apply a tropical grade insect repellent to clothes – products containing pyrethrum, picaridin or DEET are effective; and
  • Always carry a well-equipped first aid kit containing fine-tipped tweezers and disinfectants.
  • Ultimately the impetus remains with the person exposing themselves to any environmental factors when venturing into the bush to be aware of the relevant risks and prepare appropriately [9]. Management of ticks is no exception to this impetus.

    Tick removal

    Some oft spruiked methods of tick removal include:

    • Smother the tick and site in Vaseline and apply a band aid to suffocate the tick out;
    • Tie a granny knot in a length of cotton or fishing line, fasten the loop around the tick
      and ‘lasso’ it out;
    • Twist anti-clockwise with tweezers and ‘screw’ the tick out;
    • Flip the tick upside down and fold it backwards out of the skin;
    • Roll the tick’s body anticlockwise over the skin around its own mouthparts until the tick detaches;
    • Apply methylated spirits to kill the tick before removal;
    • Use a hot match to kill the tick before removal;
    • Thumb and forefinger pincer removal technique, and
    • Use a dedicated tick removal tool (of which there are many on the market).

    Other methods undoubtedly exist which are not noted above.

    The contemporary method for tick removal as per the St John Ambulance Australia First Aid Manual ([10], p.347) is as follows:

    1. Administer standard first aid management (DRABCD).
    2. Remove tick using fine-tipped forceps or equivalent, press skin down around tick’s embedded mouth part.
    3. Grip the mouth firmly, gently lift to detach the tick – do not squeeze with fingers or forceps during removal.
    4. If severe allergic reaction: call 000 for an ambulance.
    Box 1: People with known tick allergies
    If a person carries medication for an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis use immediately; if tick allergies are known, the person should always avoid exposure to ticks never enter potential infested areas [3].

    The most important point to consider, whatever the method of tick removal, is to avoid squeezing the tick’s abdomen. This will reduce the likelihood of the tick injecting more toxins into its host prior to removal. Killing a tick before removal can also cause toxins to be injected.

    While some care is required to successfully remove a tick, hard ticks (Family oxodidae) are generally robust – the motion for removal should be firm and consistent, like being engaged in a tug-o-war with the tick. The skin will pull against the attempted removal as if plucking a hair follicle but the tick will eventually release in its entirety (Figure 4).

    Tick removal displaying forceps near mouthparts

    FAQs

    Do ticks drop off once they’ve fed or do they remain attached until they die?

    Ticks will drop off their host once fully engorged with blood. Nymphs drop off after 4-6 days. Adult females remain attached for 10 days where their body size once engorged expands 200 times to about the size of a small grape (1cm) [3]. Unlike fleas which remain on one host throughout, ticks migrate from one host to another during their lifecycle.

    Do ticks keep burrowing once attached?

    A popular misnomer exists about removing the tick’s head, that if the head shears off from the body during removal it will continue burrowing under the skin. Ticks do not have heads. Concern is actually regarding the removal of the tick’s elongated mouthparts.

    While the hypostome has several rows of barbs angled backwards along its protrusion like serrations along a saw blade, any matter which remains will not continue to burrow if still embedded. The site may become infected, however, without proper treatment if any mouthparts are left in the skin.

    What should I do with the tick once removed?

    If the casualty shows signs of severe reaction, the tick should be kept for identification. If there is no reaction destroy the tick. If the tick is an engorged adult female (Figure 5), children often enjoy seeing its blood-filled body explode underfoot.

    Engorged female tick

    Concluding message

    Ticks and venomous animals are very real, particularly in Australia. Encounters with ticks have conjured up stories: of embedding in sensitive areas of our bodies, of harrowing trips to the hospital, of panic and hysteria ad nausea. Associated words, too, such as ‘bloodsucking’, ‘bloodmeal’ and ‘engorgement’ are emotively charged.

    Arguably, the main issue stems from not being aware of the facts about how to manage these bothersome little pests. With knowledge and experience comes understanding; with understanding comes the confidence to confront our fears.

    It is hoped the content of this article is helpful in illuminating some truths for Outdoor Types about ticks in the Australian bush. Nobody wants to be bitten by ticks, but at the same time we need not be put off from our adventures because of them.

    Box 2: Further information
    Health NSW advises contacting your doctor, local Public Health Unit or Community Centre. Full details of NSW Public Health Units can be viewed at: www.health.nsw.gov.au/publichealth/infectious/phus.asp.

    References

    1.Vredevoe, L., Background Information on the Biology of Ticks. University of California, Davis.
    (Last update: 28 October, 1997). Available: http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/faculty/rbkimsey/tickbio.html [2010,
    December 21].

    2.NSW Health. Ticks Factsheet NSW. (Last update: 1 May 2002). Available: http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/factsheets/general/ticks_factsheet.html [2010, December 21].

    3.Department of Medical Entomology. Ticks. University of Sydney. (Last update: 7 November
    2003). Available: http://medent.usyd.edu.au/fact/ticks.htm [2010, December 21].

    4.Shaw, M., (2000). The Australian Paralysis Tick. Department of Zoology & Entomology, University of Queensland. (Last update: 5 January 2000). Available: http://www.jeffress.net/ffnff/mshaw_ticks.htm [2010,
    December 21].

    5.The Living Australia, (eds.), (1994). Dangerous Australians: The complete guide to Australia’s most deadly creatures. Harper Collins, Sydney.

    6.Lowchens Australia. Ticks, Fleas, Flies, Spiders and other Gremlins (2009). Available: http://www.lowchensaustralia.com/pests/bites.htm [2010, December 21].

    7.Wilson, B., (1992). First Aid in the Bush: An authoritative companion when far from medical help. Wilderness Publications. Blackburn Australia.

    8.Priest, S. and Gass, M. A., (2005). Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming (Second edition). Human Kinetics. USA.

    9.Reynolds, V., Chapman, M., Lingard, R., Manders, S. and Trenchard-Smith, J., (eds.) (2000).
    Bushwalking and Ski Touring Leadership: Outdoor Recreation leadership in Australia.
    Bushwalking and Mountaincraft Training Advisory Board Inc., Victoria.

    10.St John Ambulance Australia, (2006), Australian First Aid Manual. St John Ambulance Australia, Canberra ACT.

About Blair Paterson

Blair grew up and lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He first realised a love of nature and the outdoors during weekends and holidays with his family on the Hawkesbury River. From humble childhood pastimes building billycarts and tree houses to spending large chunks of time in the bush, Blair now embarks on outdoor pursuits whenever and however possible – by foot, kayak, bicycle or other. He has worked in Environmental Management and currently Outdoor Education. Some of his fondest travels to date have been around Australia and through the Indian Himalayas.
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3 thoughts on “Ticks and People in the Australian Bush

  1. I have lived in Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains for nine years and this summer, for the first time have what appear to be “chigger” bites. These bites look exactly like chigger bites photos on American sites. They are a group of white or yellow blisters pprox 1.5cms diameter on very angry red skin which form possibly a day or hours after being bitten. They are excruciatingly itchy and remain so for weeks. I have also had several bites from what I presume is a grass tick which produces a single bite with a little blister on top which becomes very itchy. The chigger(?) bites occurred after walking in long grass by the lake and appeared on my shoulders, down my arms and on my legs. It is two months since the first bites occurred and there are still marks left on the skin. I have taken a good photo of the latest bites.

    Any ideas? And any ideas on how to reduce the burning and itching. I have avoided scratching this time but they still burn.

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