Beware The Tick

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This article was updated on 19 December 2023 with the latest scientific information.

If you or someone near you has trouble breathing or collapses after a tick bite, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. If you have access to an epipen use it.

Ticks are more active in the warmer months particularly September to December, so be aware when you are working at a bushcare site or in your bushy backyard.

While there are more than 75 types of tick in Australia, Australian paralysis tick Ixodes holocyclus is of most concern to humans and their pets.

Larval Ixodes holocyclus are often called scrub ticks. Tick bite from a full-grown tick can cause paralysis. Bites from ticks at all life stages can cause disease and allergic reactions. If you want to see photos and understand the life stages of Ixodes holocyclus go to the Wikipedia page.

In April 2010, SOWN life member Robert Whyte spent five days in hospital with a very nasty illness after he received multiple bites from larval Australian paralysis ticks Ixodes holocyclus. 

Queensland tick typhus Rickettsia australis was to blame. This disease is caused by tiny organisms that transfer to ticks when they feed on the blood of mammals. Sometimes the ticks feed on native mammals but in urban bushland the ticks also feed on the blood of the exotic black rat.

Wildlife hosts are almost always completely asymptomatic. The infections in humans are extremely serious and have been fatal when left untreated. In humans the reaction to the infection causes the immune system to over-react, leading to liver and multiple organ failure.

Australian Paralysis Tick Ixodes holocyclus looks harmless enough but can cause serious illness, severe allergic reactions as well as paralysis. Photo: Robert Whyte

Health Direct’s advice on Tick bites – symptoms, treatments and prevention

Download Queensland Museum’s Australian Paralysis Tick Fact Sheet

Want to know more about ticks? Check out Wikipedia

Early symptoms include high fever, leading to bouts of sweating and uncontrollable shivering, severe headaches and extreme weakness. It’s like a very bad flu, except there is no sore throat. Unlike a flu, symptoms continue to worsen. If the cause is recognized, it is easily treated with the antibiotic doxycycline. Other types of antibiotics, including the most common types, are ineffective.

Similar infections, such as Scrub typhus Orientia tsutsugamushi are found in the “tsutsugamushi triangle” from northern Japan and far-eastern Russia in the north, to northern Australia in the south, and to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the west.

Queensland Tick Typhus is extremely uncommon in suburban Brisbane but bushcarers are certainly at risk. If you have had multiple tick or tick-like bites and get the sweats, shivers, feel extremely weak and sick, go immediately to hospital and suggest Rickettsial infection might be the cause.

Prevention is better than cure. So what can you do?

Tsutsugamushi by Japanese painter, Shunsen Takehara in 1841 depicting an imaginary creature Japanese people in the 19th century believed was responsible for the illness.

Stopping the tick

Since his Rickettsial infection, Rob has implemented an anti-tick regime which has been highly effective.

The first thing you need to know is that ticks access humans from the ground by climbing up their bodies. Of course the ticks are very small and you usually don’t notice them.

That’s why you need to protect your whole body. To begin, you need full protective clothing:

  • long-sleeved shirt
  • long trousers
  • work boots
  • sock savers
  • broad-brimmed hat
  • riggers gloves

Rob always applies insect repellent to any exposed skin, hairline and especially the neck and scalp. The local Queensland product Rid seems the most effective, though others in ‘tropical strength’ also work. Then to be really safe he uses an aerosol insecticide to spray his clothes and hat.

You need an insect repellent that contains DEET or picaridin and an insecticide that contains permethrin on your clothes.

Rob washes all his clothing after every bushcare session. Ticks, especially when larval, often get into clothing and lurk there waiting to attach if you put the clothes on again. Larval ticks are more or less invisible and can lurk in clothes in great numbers.

Anyone working on a Habitat Brisbane site should report tick bites to their group leader. It should be noted on the Working Bee Record and reported to the Habitat Brisbane officer.

See also Dress for success: 10 tips to stay safe outdoors.

Treating tick bite

There is a great deal of misinformation about treating tick bite. Many of the methods agitate the tick and cause it to release more venom. This is to be avoided completely.

If a paralysis tick has inserted its ‘hypostome’ into your skin the only way to treat it is to kill it without agitating it. Since Rob was hospitalised in 2010, there are products made from ether which freeze the tick and should kill it immediately. Then it is vital to wait until the tick drops off. Products include Tick Off and Tick Tox. Both are available from pharmacies. Follow the instructions on the label and repeat if the tick is still moving.

You can also use an insecticide such as Lyclear, with the active ingredient permethrin, which is also available over the counter from a pharmacy. Apply the Lyclear twice, a minute apart. This will kill the tick. You will know it’s dead when its legs stop wriggling. Just wait for it to drop off. This might take some hours.

This treatment is effective for larval paralysis ticks which are so small you probably won’t see them. The Lyclear treatment also works for bird mites which can be a problem especially in the summer months for people who keep chickens.

Many people have an allergy to paralysis ticks. At worst, the allergy can be fatal if it leads to anaphylactic shock. If you are getting severe allergic reactions, see your doctor or go to hospital. If you have trouble breathing, call an ambulance.

An anaphylactic reaction is more likely to occur if you agitate or try to remove the tick. You may become increasingly allergic over time. If you have had anaphylactic shock and get a tick bite go straight to emergency to have it removed.