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All Mountain Bikers Need to Know About Ticks

Most people know that ticks can spread Lyme Disease, but recently mountain bikers have been urged to protect themselves after health officials confirmed that a potentially deadly virus spread by ticks is present in the UK.

Photo of a tick by @erik_karits on Unsplash

Ticks were once regarded as nothing more than a blood thirsty nuisance, however increasing awareness of Lyme Disease and its potentially long-lasting effects means that riders are now more concerned and aware about ticks. Now with this new discovery, it's important that we are all vigilant about ticks.

What are Ticks?

The tick is an invertebrate related to spiders. There are over twenty species in Britain and they carry a number of diseases, the most well known of which is Lyme disease. Recently however, the first confirmed domestically acquired case of tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) was identified in a 50-year-old man who was bitten by ticks while mountain biking in Yorkshire.

The virus has also been detected in Hampshire, Dorset and Norfolk and it may also be present elsewhere, officials said, as the tick species that carries the virus is widespread in the UK. Another probable case in a person has been detected in the Loch Earn area of Scotland.

What is TBEV?

TBEV is a virus carried by ticks and is common in many parts of the world, including in Europe. It causes a range of disease, from completely asymptomatic infection or mild flu-like illness to severe infection in the central nervous system such as meningitis or encephalitis.

Encephalitis is an uncommon but serious condition in which the brain becomes swollen. It can be life-threatening and requires urgent treatment in hospital. Anyone can be affected, but very young and very old people are most at risk. Officials stressed that the risk to the public was very low, however.

The 50-year-old man presented with fatigue, muscle pain and fever five days after being bitten by a tick while mountain biking in a forest in Yorkshire. After initially recovering, his fever returned a week later with a headache and loss of coordination. MRI scans showed changes in keeping with viral encephalitis.

What are its symptoms?

TBEV causes a range of diseases, from completely asymptomatic infection to mild flu-like illness, all the way to severe infection in the central nervous system such as meningitis or encephalitis (swelling of the brain).

Symptoms of encephalitis can include a high fever with a headache, neck stiffness, confusion, seizures or fits, reduced or loss of consciousness.

Seek urgent medical attention if you or anyone you know experiences symptoms of meningitis:

  • severe headache
  • stiff neck
  • pain looking at bright lights

Seek urgent medical attention if you or anyone you know develops neurological symptoms:

  • a fit (seizure), if not known to be epileptic
  • sudden confusion or change in behaviour
  • weakness or loss of movement in arms and legs
  • facial dropping, change in vision or slurred speech

More information can be found on the NHS website.

Remember that advice and treatment is readily available through the NHS. So, if you think you have been bitten by a tick and have symptoms, contact your GP and accept the treatment that is offered to you.

Ticks and Lyme disease in Scotland Flyer
Ticks and Lyme disease in Scotland (NHS Scotland leaflet)

They can be found all over Scotland, particularly in the wetter west, in woodlands, in long grass but basically anywhere we ride. They hang out waiting for a host animal to come past. They bite and attach themselves and do not have any preferences to the animal type; to them a mountain biker is simply meals-on-wheels.

The tick's bite is painless and some ticks can be as small as a spec of dirt, so it can be easy to overlook them. A tick will generally remain attached until it is gorged with blood, increasing in size, before dropping off. This can take between a few days and 2 weeks.

Two ticks of same type
Two ticks of same type: the one on on the left is engorged after feeding, while the one on the right has not fed

Stop the ticks!

Lyme Disease is on the rise, and you can get it any time of year, but spring and summer are prime time, particularly in long grass and high bracken.

Wear long socks and use insect repellent – you can actually buy riding kit with something called permethrin in, a pesticide, that will kill ticks. If you see a tick on your body use a tick removal tool.

The critters need to be attached for 16 hours before they will transmit the disease too, so checking yourself over after a summer ride is probably worthwhile. Pay particular attention to your hairline, waist band, navel, groin, arm pits, between toes, behind the ears and knees. Where possible brush down bare skin after riding or walking through long grass or bracken.

The best way to look at tick risk is to do a quick risk assessment – is the ground under your wheels, grass or surfaced trail? The longer the grass the higher the risk, if you stay on a surfaced trail with no overhanging vegetation you are unlikely to get a tick.

How to remove a tick.

Firstly, don’t panic if you find an embedded tick – it's most likely that it's not infected, and if you remove it within 24 hours it is unlikely to have passed on the bacteria.

The most reliable method of removing a tick without leaving any remnants in your skin is to purchase a tick hook or card. Tick hooks or cards come in different sizes for different sizes of tick and only cost a few pounds - they also come with instructions for safe removal. Essential kit and should be in your pack. Super important that the tick is removed cleanly in one piece – if it leaves its mouth piece it will transmit bacteria into its host. When removing ticks be purposeful and do it as efficiently as possible, in as few goes as possible, using a twist of the tick tool.

Don’t use a lighted cigarette or match or essential oils to encourage the tick to fall off and don't squeeze the tick (especially one that is engorged with blood) as this will inject the fluid in the tick back into your body.

If you become unwell.

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.

It takes up to 24 hours before the bacteria are transmitted from the tick to its host and symptoms of infection may appear at any time within two weeks after the bite.

A common sign is a distinctive bulls-eye rash that may appear (though not always) around the area of the bite. As infection spreads several rashes can appear at different sites on the body.

The bullseye rash that can signify Lyme Disease
NHS Choices - Lyme Disease and Ticks

Other symptoms include fatigue, fever, headaches, stiff neck and body aches - similar to the flu. These symptoms may be persistent or may occur intermittently.

If you experience any of these symptoms, see your GP immediately and mention your concerns about Lyme disease. Mention that you have recently visited an area with a high number of ticks – the back story is important in getting a positive diagnosis.

Lyme disease - what is it?

Early treatment with antibiotics is required in order to be effective in lessening the short-term symptoms and the long-term complications. Full recovery is possible, but treatment in the later stages of infection is more difficult and relapses are common.

After several months of being infected, about ½ of those treated with antibiotics develop recurrent attacks of painful and swollen joints (arthritis) that last from a few days to a few months. The arthritis can shift from joint to joint, the knee being most commonly affected. About 10-20% of infected patients will develop chronic arthritis.

Research indicates that the variant 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.

The positive bit....

We know that there are many associated risks with our sport but it is worth bearing in mind that there are 1.3million mountain bike rides to the countryside in Scotland every year and that it is very unlikely that a rider will get ill from a tick bite. However the more vigilant we are to the wee blighters - the better.

You can find out more about ticks and Lyme disease at the following links:


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