Updated 1 June 2023
In April 2010, SOWN life member Robert Whyte spent five days in hospital with a very nasty illness caused by a tick bite. Scrub or tick typhus, a Rickettsial infection, was to blame. These infections are carried by ticks feeding on the blood of local mammals.
There are two main types of the disease around South-East Queensland:
- Queensland tick typhus caused by Rickettsia australis transmitted by the Paralysis Tick Ixodes holocyclus
- scrub typhus caused by Orientia tsutsugamushi transmitted by mites known as scrub ticks or pepper ticks (chiggers)
The diseases are caused by tiny organisms that live in the blood of local mammals such as bandicoots and wallabies. These mammals probably suffer slightly, but are largely immune. Some bandicoots carry up to a thousand ticks and seem to live normal lives. 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 and severe allergic reactions. Photo: Robert Whyte
But 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.
To begin, he wears 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 and aerosol insecticide to spray his clothes and hat.
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. Chiggers, the mites, 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.
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 for mites and 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 ticks especially 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 only 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 got straight to emergency to have it removed.
Mammalian Meat Allergy
SOWN members should be aware of another tick-related condition – Mammalian Meat Allergy (MMA), or alpha gal syndrome. I developed this allergy about 9 months ago after being bitten by a tick. The allergic reaction occurs several hours after eating meat or meat products such as gelatin. Some people also react to dairy and certain medical products. Symptoms include strong stomach pain, hives and breathlessness. In some cases severe anaphylaxis can occur. It’s thought that ticks acquire alpha gal from feeding on mammals such as bandicoots, then pass it on to humans, where it causes an allergic reaction. This is more likely if the tick is squeezed or agitated during removal, which is why freezing with products such as Tick Off is so important.
Report of another Rickettsial infection
Another member writes: We wanted to let you know that in July our 3-year-old son spent 9 days in hospital with a unknown infection. Four days after he was discharged we found out he had a Rickettsial infection. The next day while getting his hair cut we found a sore on his head where they think the tick had been on him. To this day we don’t how long the tick was on him or where it went. The doctor looking after him was very puzzled as this disease is very uncommon in Brisbane but maybe it is on the rise. We live at Upper Kedron and have a water corridor backing onto our backyard. This is where we were thinking he got the tick.
Bird Mites – another source of itches
Still got the itches? If you’ve ruled out Australian Paralysis Ticks and chiggers, then you might be suffering an infestation of bird mites. This article “Human infestation with bird mites in Wollongong” was published in Communicable Diseases Intelligence Volume 27, No 2, June 2003 reports on a case of bird mite infestation which occurred in Wollongong in mid-December 1996. It’s good guide to the mites and how to treat them. Humans can become host to bird mites. Anyone who keeps chickens could be at risk of a bird mite infestation but the mites can also come from birds nesting in the eaves of your house. Bird mites give you a sensation called formication which is the feeling you get from ants crawling over your skin. That’s because the mites are actually crawling on on your skin. They can be treated with an insecticide suitable for humans such as Lyclear.