Life Science Tick bites can make you really sick. Here’s how to deal with them

Tick bites can make you really sick. Here’s how to deal with them

Ticks can be hard to clock – in reality this one would be smaller than a poppyseed. Photo: Henry Lydecker
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Blood-sucking ticks can end up feasting in some pretty awkward spots – from your ear canal to your eyeball, not to mention your groin!

You’ll come across these tiny parasites – a type of arachnid related to mites – in many parts of Australia, particularly along the east coast.

They hang on blades of grass or other vegetation, waving their outstretched legs and waiting to latch on to unsuspecting passers-by.

And they can make you really sick.

So before you panic, check out these top tips on ticks.

Quick tick facts

  • There are 70 species in Australia and at least 16 bite humans
  • All stages of life cycle can feed and you can be bitten any time of year
  • Ticks can be smaller than poppyseeds
  • Unless removed they can feed on you for around three to seven days
  • Pets and native animals can carry ticks into your backyard

Why worry about ticks?

When a tick bites you, it stabs you with a barbed straw-like mouth part and squirts saliva into you.

This saliva contains toxins and other nasties that can cause a range of health issues.

Tick bites can lead to bacterial diseases like Queensland Tick Typhus and Flinders Island Spotted Fever.

The east coast paralysis tick (Ixodes holocyclus) can cause paralysiswhich is a relatively rare in humans. (Watch out for your pets though.)

Far more common are allergic reactions to tick saliva. These can range from mild, where the bite gets red, swollen and inflamed, to life threatening anaphylaxis. 

Ticks bites can also lead to Mammalian Meat Allergy (MMA), which means you can no longer eat red meat (including beef, lamb, pork or goat) or associated products, like gelatine. It may also mean that you are unable to have certain drugs or vaccines.

According to Tick Induced Allergies Research & Awareness (TiARA), Australia has the highest prevalence of MMA and tick anaphylaxis in the world.

To avoid getting ticks …

  • Wear light coloured clothing (to more easily see ticks) – permethrin-treated where possible
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants with pants tucked into socks
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat
  • Use an insect repellent containing DEET
  • Before coming back inside brush your clothes to remove ticks
  • Check your body over for ticks

You’ve got a tick. Now what?

There’s conflicting advice about what you should do if you’ve been bitten by a tick.

What we do know, you need to avoid squeezing or disturbing it as this will likely cause it to squirt more allergens, toxins and pathogens into you.


  • scratch it
  • pull it out with your fingers
  • use a pin or match stick to pull it out
  • burn it
  • put chemicals like methylated spirits, nail polish, alcohol or petroleum jelly on it.

Some say pull it out

The traditional advice — including from the federal health department – is to pull it out with fine-tipped forceps tweezers (not the blunt household tweezers most of us use).

Grasp the tick close to its mouth parts near your skin’s surface, then gently pull upwards with steady pressure. Try to avoid jerking or twisting the tick.

In reality, this is quite difficult to do and is not recommended for those with a tick allergy.

Some say ‘freeze it’

But the advice from Australian allergy and emergency specialists is to kill it while it’s still attached to you.

They say using tweezers risks increases the chances you will inadvertently squeeze the tick, which means it will inject more saliva into you.

“Household tweezers are tick squeezers,” says Dr Sheryl van Nunen, who first discovered Mammalian Meat Allergy.

The Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) recommends freezing the tick using an ether-containing spray – your pharmacist should be able to help you find these products.

After five minutes the tick should die and drop off. If it doesn’t drop off or you can’t freeze the tick, ASCIA says to seek medical help.

It’s worth noting: freezing can damage the skin in sensitive areas of the bodies, so be sure to follow the instructions.

Baby ticks are often too small to spray so the advice is to “dab it, don’t grab it” – dabbing the tiny ticks with permethrin-containing cream like that used to treat scabies.

Then you can brush them off or they will fall off naturally.

Why is this advice confusing?

Experts say there has been little research on Australian ticks and the health risks they pose. International research may not take into account the Australian situation.

study released last year by Dr van Nunen and team adds weight to a growing consensus in Australia supporting the “kill-the-tick-in-place” approach.

The health department says it’s releasing an updated tick fact sheet in early 2020 based on the latest evidence.

What should you do if you think you’re allergic?

While there’s no test for tick allergy, if you have had an allergic reaction to ticks then you should definitely see your doctor.

For those known to have tick allergies, the health department and ASCIA advise going to a medical facility to have the tick removed.

And make sure you carry an EpiPen and use it immediately you notice any symptoms of anaphylaxis.

Allergy aside, always seek medical advice if you feel unwell following a tick bite.

What about Lyme disease?

Some say Australian ticks can cause a debilitating Lyme disease-like syndrome.

However, so far researchers have failed to find Australian ticks harbouring the bacteria that cause the illness.

Research is looking into possible causes of the condition (currently called ‘Debilitating Symptom Complexes Attributed to Ticks‘).

Some researchers think unique bacteria present in Australian ticks may be causing the symptoms.


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