A key part of the attraction that Scotland exerts over so many people lies in the very wide range of outdoor activities available here. Many of these activities come with an element of risk, and in many cases part of the enjoyment comes from being aware of those risks and managing them sensibly. But while some risks are obvious, others are much less so. Most people know it's not a good idea to wander into Scotland's mountains without suitable clothing and equipment: and the majority apply that knowledge. But there are less obvious risks it is easy to forget to guard against. Ticks fall into that category, and it helps to know a little about them and how to manage and deal with them, before actually encountering one.
A tick is a very small parasite which belongs to the spider family and feeds on the blood of birds, reptiles and mammals, including humans. There are several types, but the most commonly encountered in Scotland is the Sheep Tick, Ixodes ricinus, also known as the Wood Tick or Castor Bean Tick. Ticks do not have wings and cannot fly or jump, and in Scotland you are most likely to come into contact with one by brushing through vegetation on which a sheep has previously left a tick. Dog-owners can also come into contact with them if their pet has brushed through vegetation carrying ticks.
From this description, you could be forgiven for thinking that although ticks are obviously unpleasant, they fall into the same sort of "nuisance" category as Scottish midges. The real problem with ticks is that they can carry Lyme Disease or Borreliosis, a potentially very serious bacterial disease. By no means all ticks carry Lyme Disease, and by no means all bites by infected ticks result in the development of the disease in the person who has been bitten. But it really is better to be safe than sorry, and the aim of this page is to pass on some tips about how to avoid ticks and what to do if you become a host to one.
First, though Undiscovered Scotland usually doesn't cite sources, in this case it is worth saying that you can learn far more about ticks on the Tick Prevention Week website. This site gives the background to an annual campaign run by the Borreliosis and Associated Diseases Awareness UK, or BADA-UK, which is the definitive source of information about Lyme Disease or Borreliosis.
Avoiding Ticks. Ticks can most easily attach themselves to bare flesh. Avoiding wearing shorts is therefore a big step in the right direction. Gaiters are even more effective at preventing access between your trousers and boots. Remember that other parts of you can brush against tall summer vegetation, so clothing with elasticated cuffs and drawstrings is also helpful. Avoiding overhanging or overgrowing vegetation is another obvious, but often overlooked, way of avoiding ticks. Remember that you usually have to go to the ticks: they are very unlikely to come to you.
Insect repellents containing permethrin can help deter ticks when sprayed onto clothes (don't apply it to skin). Repellents containing DEET (di-ethyl toluamide) can also help, as they do against midges. If you are a dog owner, ensure you have with you the means of checking for and treating any ticks they acquire, and consider using one of the tick repellents sold in pet shops.
Take off any outer clothing before coming into your home or where you are staying. Any ticks in clothing are more likely to be killed by heat than water so a spell in a tumble drier is ideal, perhaps after a hot cycle in a washing machine.
Removing Ticks. You will find that many chemists and outdoor shops sell tick removal tools, usually coming in a pack containing two different sizes of a plastic implement looking a little like a question mark. If you are often in the outdoors, it is a good idea to get hold of one of these packs and carry it with you. To actually remove the tick you should follow the instructions on the packaging. Tick removal tools are also available from BADA-UK.
If you don't have a specialist tool available, then remember that the aim is to remove the tick from your skin intact, i.e. complete with its head, and in a way that does not so seriously distress the tick that it regurgitates its stomach contents into you, increasing the risks of infection if the tick is carrying Lyme Disease. You should therefore NOT use heat, freezing or coating the tick with liquid or any jelly to try to persuade it to leave; and simply trying to brush the tick off is a very bad idea. The definitive advice is set out in illustrated detail here and involves using fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as near its head as possible, then simply pulling upwards steadily, without twisting, until the tick detaches. You then check to make sure you've got all of it.
After being in the sort of area where ticks occur, it helps if you have a friend - ideally a very close friend - who can check you over thoroughly for any attached ticks, and for whom you can return the favour.