The following should not be construed as medical advice. If itching persists, see your doctor.
One Sunday morning in October 2013 I woke early with a weird sensation behind my ear. Half asleep I picked the tick off that was embedded in my scalp. Less than a minute later my body erupted in a full-scale hives-like rash, my lips began tingling and I began wheezing. I jumped in the shower to see if that would ease the dreadful itching (I had angry red welts all over my body). I began to feel quite ill; hyperventilating and feeling light-headed. She Who Took Me To Hospital looked about as worried as I’d ever seen her. Not that I was caring much. By then I was feeling fit to pass out.
At Maleny Soldiers Memorial Hospital, known for its focused care and attention to patients (and a missing apostrophe), staff swung into action. The nurse on duty administered antihistamines and summonsed the doctor. The doctor ordered up Ventolin as he was not happy with the way my lungs were sounding. While that was happening, various nurses and doctors wandered back and forth to see how I was doing, all the while monitoring my blood pressure. The doctor returned and gave me an injection of adrenalin. Instantaneously the rash disappeared, my blood pressure started to normalise and I began to feel well enough to start contemplating my new-found status as being allergic to Ixodes holocyclus, or the paralysis tick.
As a precaution, I was admitted to hospital, remaining for the next 36 hours, during which time I was carefully monitored. The house concert we’d planned for that afternoon passed me by. Our guest musicians, Sarah Calderwood and Paul Brandon played on, and after the gig called in to visit me, along with a couple of friends who’d come for the house concert and found me missing in action.
Hospitals around South-East Queensland reported a higher than normal incidence of tick anaphylaxis that summer. A tick attack in an allergic individual is serious business. An allergic reaction causes the blood pressure to drop rapidly. The issue is that you could lose consciousness before being able to get help. If your airways swell up and become blocked, well, it’s game over.
It’s a bit hard avoiding ticks when you live on the eastern seaboard, as they are commonly found from Cape York to Tasmania and up to 30 kms inland.
The tick is also found in the Australian Capital Territory and a similar tick is found around Launceston in Tasmania. The common hosts are bandicoots, possums, brush turkeys, kangaroos and koalas.
A new way of life
I was sent me on my way with two Epipens and careful instructions on how to use them (as was She Who Hopes She Never Has to Stick a Needle in the Scribe) and a prescription for oral cortisone. It was also suggested I keep antihistamines handy as well as Lyclear, which is an ointment used to treat scabies. The drill is to carefully inspect your body for ticks after gardening or bushwalking (I do lots of both), and if you find one, dab some Lyclear on it and later remove it with tweezers or patented tick removers.
Sorry, I had to stop writing just then and go into the bathroom to inspect my nether regions. You?
Ticks can roam around on your body for up to two hours before latching on in body crevices, armpits, groin, behind the knees, on the head, behind the ears and on the back of the neck under the hairline.
The tick goes through four life stages over the course of a year. The following is a precis from an excellent website maintained by Tiara (Tick Induced Allergies Research and Awareness).
Ticks are commonly found in wet sclerophyll forests and temperate rainforests. The mature female will lay 2,500 to 3,000 eggs in moist leaf litter before she dies. Only a few of these eggs survive to adulthood. The eggs hatch as six legged larvae which must obtain a blood meal before they can moult to the next stage. These are the tiny ticks that show up on your body as itchy red welts. The larva climbs to the top of the nearest vegetation and waits for a passing host. The larva feeds on the host’s blood for four to six days, then drops off the host and moults to the eight-legged nymph stage. Nymphs seek a further blood meal for four to eight days before moulting to the adult tick. Adult female ticks feed for 10 days, drop off the host and then lay eggs over several weeks.
(Sorry I just had to duck upstairs for a quick shower. You?)
Before my body decided it had enough of ticks and tried to reject their toxins, I had numerous incidents where large ticks had embedded themselves in various parts of my body. I was savvy enough to know the tick should be killed before removal. If you try to forcibly remove the tick while it is still alive (guilty as charged), there is a risk the tick will release a toxic dose of saliva into your body. Even if you’ve had a mild to moderate reaction, the next time could be more serious.
By far the strangest allergic reaction to a tick is an allergy to mammalian flesh as a result of a prior tick bite. This used to be an extremely rare condition, but sadly it is now more common than either doctors or their patients would like. Imagine having to become a vegetarian or restrict your diet to fish and chicken because eating red meat makes you desperately ill?
I hear a few of you scoffing – check out this Catalyst programme from February.
The key to avoiding a tick bite is precautions. Some people react by moving somewhere else. But if you think about the distribution, moving is probably futile, unless you plan to move to the desert.
This is not an exhaustive list of precautions but contains the handiest hints I know.
• Wear light-coloured, long sleeved shirts and tuck your trousers into your socks or wear gumboots when gardening or bushwalking;
• wear a wide-brimmed hat;
• Sensitive individuals should apply personal insecticide to exposed flesh and on their gardening/walking clothes;
• Remove gardening/bushwalking clothes outside the house and immediately have a shower, carefully inspecting your body;
• Some people put gardening clothes in the dryer on hot for 10 minutes, supposedly to kill any ticks loitering there;
• Mow lawns frequently and be aware that ticks can crawl up your pant legs;
• If you are allergic, buy an insulated baby bottle pouch and carry your Epipen at all times. Replace every 12 months;
• Guinea fowl and chooks eat ticks. But chooks destroy gardens and guinea fowl have a braying call that might annoy you or your neighbours.
There are electronic gadgets that emit ultrasonic sound that is said to repel ticks up to 3 metres. I bought one last year from the chemist and can report that I’ve not had a tick latch on to me when I’ve been wearing it.
You probably guessed by now I’ve been lured out to the garden to take control of the spring weed growth. So far the ticks don’t seem to be as bad as the bindi-eyes – but it’s early days.