Family enjoying a woodland walk

This Green Health Week, Professor Dominic Mellor, Consultant in Veterinary Public Health at Public Health Scotland, discusses the importance of being bug and germ aware while exploring the outdoors.

Reflecting on the benefits, Dominic explains...

Being able to switch off for a bit and be outside in green spaces is really good for my soul, especially in springtime. Whether I’m out walking my dogs or just sitting outside in a garden or park, taking in the air and sights and sounds of spring offers a dose of much-needed calmness and peace. Not only is it good for my physical health, it’s really good for my mental wellbeing.

In enjoying all this, and doing the job which I do, I’ve learned a few things that I hope will be useful in helping you to avoid getting a tick bite while outdoors.

Ticks and Lyme disease

Ticks are little spider-like beasties that live in outdoor green spaces and are more active in spring, summer and early autumn. A tick’s mission in life is to feed on blood and make more ticks!

Image caption Relative sizes of different tick life stages compared to a human thumbnail.
Human thumb and thumb with ticks at 4 life stages to compare size.

Ticks aren’t fussy about whose blood they feed on: animals, birds, humans - it’s all the same to them. You don’t feel ticks biting you: they produce local anaesthetic at the place they puncture the skin. If not found and removed, a tick can stay attached for a few days until it is swollen with blood, at which point it drops off and carries on with its normal life-cycle.

As a result of not feeling them, and because they’re so small, it’s easy not to notice that you or others have a tick attached.

In Scotland, a small proportion of ticks can be carrying bugs in their insides, which they pick up from the animals or birds they have fed on earlier in their life-cycle. From a human point of view, the most important of these bugs is called Borrelia, which causes Lyme disease in people. Borrelia has been found in between 0% and 10% of ticks in different places and different times of year in Scotland.

Symptoms and prevention

Key symptoms of Lyme disease include a large, reddened skin rash spreading out from the site of a tick bite or flu-like symptoms after being bitten by a tick. Both situations should trigger a call to a GP practice so that the risk of Lyme disease can be assessed and treatment offered.

The symptoms of Lyme disease tend to be mild and, if detected early, respond very well to a course of antibiotics. If early symptoms are missed or ignored it is more likely that longer-term symptoms will develop.

To avoid being bitten by ticks, cover up bare skin with long trousers and long sleeves when in outdoor green spaces. Using insect repellents also helps.

It’s really important to check for ticks after spending time in outdoor green spaces. Ticks can get into all sorts of secret and embarrassing places, so it’s important to be thorough about this.

Tick removal

If you do discover a tick attached to you or someone who you’re with, there’s no need to panic. Removing attached ticks properly and quickly using a specially designed tick removal tool greatly reduces the likelihood that they can pass any bugs on to you. The plastic ones shaped like a little claw hammer (Tick twister) or credit card (Tick card) are generally the easiest to use.

A tick being removed.

Don’t worry if you don’t have one of these tick removal tools to hand: it’s better to get attached ticks off quickly. Fine tipped tweezers can be used to lift the tick up and off the skin. It’s important not to squeeze the tick’s body when removing them.

A tick being removed.

It’s a good idea to crush any removed ticks so that they cannot reattach to yourself or anyone else.

That's it! Enjoy using the outdoors safely. There’s more information about avoiding getting caught out by bugs and germs when enjoying outdoor green spaces on NHS Inform.

Last updated: 13 June 2022