Ticks are tiny parasites that depend on the blood of host animals to survive. They thrive in dark, humid environments, and become active in the springtime as soon as the weather warms up. Contrary to popular belief, they do not drop from above, since the sunlight and dry air put them at risk of dehydration. Instead, they usually hang out in the dense, dark and moist underbrush until an unsuspecting target strolls by, and burrow through clothing to get to skin, where they bury their heads and start loading up on their victim’s blood. Unless noticed and removed, they will feed for a few days before they abandon their host. More than 20 different species of ticks live in Hungary’s forests, and only 2-3 of these are a threat to humans. Most ticks do not carry any diseases. However rare, tick-borne diseases can be dangerous. About 1 in 1000 ticks carry Lyme disease, while as many as 20-30% of ticks may carry encephalitis.
How to avoid ticks
Since ticks like cool, moist and dark environments, which can mostly be found in the underbrush, make sure that you wear long pants that are tucked into your hiking boots. Wear light-colored clothing, that way ticks will be easier to spot. You can use tick-repellent sprays, but the most effective ones are those that contain DEET or permethrin, both of which are pesticides that are absorbed through the skin. Some natural products contain only essential oils such as eucalyptus oil.
But most importantly, do a tick check every day after returning home. Ticks prefer the hairy scalp or other dark, moist places in the body, such as in folds of skin like the armpits, under knees, the crotch area, or even in the belly-button! Lazier ticks that didn’t make it to the skin from your clothes may hide out hoping for another chance. Tumble dry clothes on high heat to kill them.
How to remove a tick
Don’t panic, but don’t wait to remove the tick, either. It is important to remove the tick as soon as possible. Since pathogen transmission usually happens after the first 24 hours, the less time that passes between the tick bite and removal, the smaller the chances of infection, should the tick be carrying any diseases.
Grab the animal under its belly and pull it out using even pressure. You can use tweezers or even a knife. The most important thing is not to squeeze the contents of the tick’s stomach into the bloodstream. The head breaking off is less of a problem, since the head contains far less infectious material than the contents of the stomach, and as the skin heals, it will eject any parts that were left. Cick here to see a video of how to safely remove a tick. After the tick is out, disinfect the spot, and keep an eye on it for the characteristic red ring that is a hallmark of Lyme disease.
Most ticks do not carry any illnesses, and not every bite by a carrier tick will result in an infection. Nonetheless, the two most common illnesses carried by ticks are serious enough to warrant concern.
Tick-borne encephalomeningitis is a virus that affects the central nervous system. If it affects the brain, it is called encephalitis, if it affects the meninges, it is called meningitis, but it also can affect both, in which case it is called encephalomeningitis.
The first 7 to 14 days following infection are asymptomatic. Then a two-phase illness follows, with the first phase lasting from 2 to 4 days, with non-specific symptoms that may include fever, malaise, anorexia, muscle aches, headache, nausea, and/or vomiting. After about 8 days of remission, the second phase of the disease occurs in 20% to 30% of patients and involves the central nervous system with symptoms of meningitis (e.g., fever, headache, and a stiff neck) or encephalitis (e.g., drowsiness, confusion, sensory disturbances, and/or motor abnormalities such as paralysis) or encephalomeningitis. In about 60% of the patients who experience the second phase, there are some lasting neurological complications. Recovery is usually long and requires a hospital stay. The illness is more severe in adults than in children. While there is no cure for encephalomeningitis, there is a vaccine.
Symptoms of early localized Lyme disease begin days or weeks after infection. They are similar to the flu and may include body-wide itching, chills, fever, general malaise, headache, light-headedness or fainting, muscle pains and a stiff neck.
There may also be a “bull’s eye” rash, a flat or slightly raised red spot at the site of the tick bite. Often there is a clear area in the center. It can be quite large and expanding in size.
Symptoms may come and go. Untreated, Lyme disease can spread to the brain, heart, and joints.
Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics. Anybody who has been bitten by a tick needs to be watched for symptoms for 30 days and evaluated by a physician if they show any of the above symptoms after being bitten by a tick.
Two types of vaccines are available in Hungary against tick-borne encephalitis. Both of them have adult and child versions. Both of them require a series of shots before immunity develops, and reminder shots need to be administered every 3-5 years to maintain immunity.
The vaccination does not protect against Lyme disease.