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Updated 07 November 2013

Tick bites

Tick bites seldom lead to serious problems, but some ticks may transmit organisms which could lead to illness.

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Ticks are parasites belonging to the arachnid family that embed their heads in the skin to feed on the blood of mammals.

Ticks range in colour from brown to grey. They are usually found in the veld, especially where there are cattle and antelope, and on domestic animals. Tick bites are more common during spring and summer.

Tick bites seldom lead to serious problems, but some ticks may transmit organisms which could lead to illnesses such as Lyme disease, Crimean-Congo fever, and more commonly, Tick bite fever.

Although these illnesses can usually be treated easily, it is best to take common-sense measures to prevent being bitten.

Home treatment

  • Check the whole body for ticks especially hairy areas, skin clefts and crevices.
  • If a tick is found, remove it immediately. The sooner it is removed, the less chance that bacteria will be spread. Don't use bare fingers to remove the tick. Clutch it with fine-tipped tweezers as close to the skin as possible. Do not squeeze or crush the tick, because this may inject more bacteria. Pull the tick out in a straight line – don't jerk or twist it. Make sure that the head is also removed. If the head remains behind, it could cause a small necrotic ulcer ("veld sore").
  • Do not touch the tick with your bare hand. Use a tissue.
  • Bury, burn or flush the tick or better still, save it in a container in case you develop a tick-borne illness and tests need to be done.
  • Wash your hands as well as the site where you were bitten. Apply antiseptic cream.

See your doctor if:

  • The whole tick could not be removed.
  • Flu-like symptoms develop - a headache, rash, ulcer or fever or feel generally unwell. These symptoms can develop up to three weeks after being bitten.

Tick bite fever (rickettsia)
Tick bite fever is common in South Africa, especially if the person has not built up immunity against the illness. It is caused by a bacterial infection transmitted by the saliva of infected ticks. Bacteria may also enter through small abrasions if a tick is crushed on the skin.

African tick bite fever is usually mild and responds well to antibiotics. Serious complications and death are rare.

Symptoms
The incubation period (period between being infected and displaying symptoms) is about five to seven days. Look out for:

  • A black ulcer-like lesion (eschar) where you were bitten
  • Severe headache
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Painful or enlarged lymph nodes
  • Rash

Home treatment

  • Remove tick, wash the site and apply antiseptic cream.
  • Pain and fever can be treated with aspirin or paracetamol.

See your doctor if:

  • There are symptoms of tick bite fever. Antibiotics will be needed.

Prevention

  • Wear light-coloured, long-sleeved shirts, trousers tucked into your socks and a hat when you visit tick-infested areas. Spray insect repellents containing diethyl-m-toluamide (DEET) on your body and clothes. Don't use it on the skin of children under the age of six.
  • When hiking, stick to the centre of footpaths and avoid bushes.
  • Keep your pets free of ticks.
  • After hiking, examine your body carefully for ticks. Taking a shower and shampooing your hair will also help.
 

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