Mountain bikers need to be aware of ticks, what they are, how to remove them, and the diseases they can spread such as Lyme disease, TBE and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Forewarned is forearmed.
Fresh air, big views, long descents and lush vegetation – mountain biking allows us to access all of these good things. But the slight downside to being out in nature is that sometimes nature bites back, and ticks are on of those nasty little insects whose bite can have serious consequences if not dealt with correctly.
And don’t disregard the risks; there are riders who’ve already had some bad experiences with things like Lyme disease, which can be transmitted by tick bites, and other tick-borne diseases are on the rise.
What are ticks?
Ticks are a type of external, biting parasite (aka ectoparasite) that feeds on animal blood. They have eight legs, a large abdomen, a small head with biting mouth parts, and are not insects but in fact a type of mite, and therefore an arachnid, so are distantly related to spiders. They are small – some can be as small as a poppy seed – and can be hard to spot.
Ticks sense the prescence of animals by sensing motion, moisture, odor and body heat. They will typically rest in grass or other vegetation, then attach to a passing host as it brushes past. One on the host, they will latch their sharp jaws deep into the skin and feed. They’ll stay on the host feeding until they are full (their abdomen swell up to several times the original size of the tick – yuck!) and then will release and drop off.
Once they’ve latched on, they can be very hard to spot, partly because of their small size and partly because they often beeline for warm, wet bits of the body – think arm pits and groin – but they can latch on anywhere. People often don’t notice them until they’re in a shower or bath later in the day after their ride.
Ticks can be found in woodland, moorland and grassy areas – so basically where we like to go ride mountain bikes. The main season is March to October when the weather is warmer, but with climate change this period is extending. In the UK, there are a lot of ticks in the Scottish Highlands, but they can be found across the country.
Tick bites dos and don’ts
DO NOT try and pull the tick off by pulling at the body. You can end up pulling the body off and leaving the head and mouth parts under the skin which can cause infection. You can also squeeze fluid from the tick into the bite this way which again can cause infection.
DO carry a device for removing ticks with you. These can be anything from special tick tweezers, scoops or even credit-card type devices. They allow you do
DO NOT scratch the area. You risk more damage, infection, or accidentally disengaging the tick body if it’s still attached.
DO keep it clean, and keep an eye on it. If you notice a red, circular rash appearing, or experience any of the symptoms of Lyme disease, TBE or then seek medical attention.
DO NOT use things like match ends or Vaseline to try and get the tick to release.
DO keep an eye on any bite sites even after the tick has been removed, because some diseases can take several months to start showing symptoms.
DO NOT release the tick you’ve removed or squish it with your fingers. Instead, flush it down the toilet or kill it by immersing it in alcohol.
Tick-borne diseases: Lyme disease, TBE and Rocky Mountain spotted fever
Ticks can be carriers of certain diseases, in the same way that mosquitos can carry malaria or dengue fever. Different diseases can be present in different geographical areas, and this can change over time, so as well as looking out for ticks in general, it’s also important to be aware of the types of tick-borne diseases that might be in the area your riding in, and what the symptoms are.
The main diseases you need to be aware of are Lyme disease, TBE or Tick Borne Encephalitis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Lyme disease, also known as Lyme borreliosis, is a bacterial infection spread by bites from infected ticks. It’s one of the most common tick-borne diseases, and is present across the UK and the US.
Initial symptoms may include a circular rash around the bit site that can develop up to a month after you’ve been bitten, and is often described as looking a bit like a bull’s-eye on a dart board with a red raised edge. However, about one in three people don’t develop the rash, and others may get several rashes across different parts of their body.
Other symptoms include fatigue, joint and muscle pain, heaches and flu-like symptoms. If you experience these after having been bitten, and partcularly if you have the rash, go to your doctor.
TBE – Tick Borne Encephalitis
This is a viral disease spread by infected ticks, and is present across Europe and Asia. In the last few years there have been several instances of TBE in the UK, around Hampshire, Dorset, Norfolk and Suffolk, and while numbers are still very low, it’s worth being aware of, and being aware that it might have spread beyond these areas. There is currently no TBE in the US.
The disease is serious, and can have similar symptoms to meningitis. If any of the symptoms of TBE are experienced after a tick bite, including severe headache, stiff neck, pain looking at bright lights, confusion, slurred speech or behavioural changes, then an urgent medical appointment should be made.
Unfortunately Lyme disease and TBE aren’t the only diseases that ticks can spread, and others include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is common in the US. In general, the advice is the same across all of these: remove the tick as quickly and safely as possible, and if you experience any illness, rashes, fevers or other symptoms after a tick bite, seek medical attention.
Can you get ticks while mountain biking?
Yes, you can pick up ticks while mountain biking. While you might be speeding through the undergrowth at a rapid pace, the chances are you’ll also stop for a break here and there, maybe sit down on a nice log for a snack or lunch, or even head into the undergrowth for a ‘nature break’. Any time you’re in contact with vegetation or long grass, there’s the opportunity for a tick to hitch a lunch ride.
If you’re looking for more information, Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland has some helpful advice,
How to prevent tick bites while mountain biking
There’s no completely foolproof way to avoid getting a tick, but if you know you’re going to be in an area where there are ticks, there are a few precautions you can take to minimise the chances.
If you can, keep covered up – trousers are great, tucked into your socks if you don’t mind the style implications, as this makes it harder for ticks to get onto your skin. Lighter coloured fabrics make spotting the little biters easier. On bare skin, use insect repellent and reapply frequently.
And once you’ve got your riding kit off, shake it out and check it for ticks that might have hitched a lift. If you’ve got a trail dog, you’ll also need to check them.
Once you’ve finished riding, ideally as soon as you stop – when you’re getting changed is a good opportunity – have a good look to see if you can spot any on you. If there is, the sooner you spot it and remove it, the better. Check again when you get home when you’ve got more time, and a mirror or someone to help you spot areas that you can’t easily see by yourself, such as your back, bum and scalp.
What to do if you find a tick on you
Use a tick tweezers or card to remove it. Each device will come with it’s own instructions, but essentially you’ll grip the tick firmly but gently right down close to skin, avoiding the abdomen, then pull up with a steady, even pressure, directly away from the skin surface.
Don’t twist or jerk as this can cause the mouth parts to break away and be left in the skin.
If there are any mouth parts left and you can easily remove them with tweezers, do so, but don’t start digging around as you might cause more damage. Your body will eventually just expel them like it does with splinters and things.
Then thoroughly wash the area with soap and water, or an alcohol wipe. You might find a little raised bump or pimple that clears after a few days, which is a normal reaction. But if you have any of the symptoms listed above, it might be something more serious so go see your doctor.
If you’re not confident with what to do, the CDC (Centre for Disease Control, US) has a handy interactive Tick Bite Bot which will take you through every step of the process.