Understanding ticks | Prevention of tick bites | How to remove a tick

See also Tick Bite First Aid Program

The best way to avoid contracting diseases from ticks is to reduce your exposure to potential transmission. In the majority of cases, transmission of Lyme is via a tick bite.

Australian patients have reported becoming ill with Lyme symptoms via other avenues of transmission which are not officially recognised. Find out more on the Lyme Disease: The Basics page.

Understanding ticks

Ticks are parasites that can feed on the blood of ‘host’ mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

The species most likely to transmit disease in Australia is the Ixodes holocyclus tick, the paralysis tick. Adult paralysis ticks generally measure 5mm in length, but double in size once fed. At least 16 of 70 ticks found in Australia are reported to feed on humans.

Left: Unfed Paralysis tick © Qld Museum, Jeff Wright

Most ticks have four distinct stages of development; egg, larva, nymph and adult.

Lyme LDAA - life cycle of ticks. Eggs to larva to nymph to adult tick.

Once hatched from the egg, ticks at every stage must eat blood in order to survive.

Larvae are identifiable by their small size (often 1mm) and six legs. After their first blood meal, larvae drop off their host and moult to the 8-legged nymphal stage.

Nymphs stay small, often only up to 2mm. A further blood meal allows nymphs to reach maturity as an adult. 

Where can ticks be found?

You may find them anywhere, theoretically. This is because ticks can spend a long time on host animals or people before falling off. They are most likely to live in humid, moist, bushy areas. Ticks usually lay eggs in leaf litter or mulch. 

Unlike their hosts, ticks themselves are not very mobile. They climb onto grass or low-lying foliage to wait for passing hosts to feed on.

The life cycle of an Ixodes tick

How do ticks find hosts?

Ticks have amazing skills to help them detect hosts. These include smelling breath and body odours, and sensing body heat, moisture and vibration. Some can even recognise shadows.

Using these skills, ticks are able to identify well-used paths. They then position themselves on nearby grass tips and shrubs. Because they can’t fly or jump, most ticks use their rear legs to grasp onto the plant. They use a behaviour called ‘questing’ whereby they hold their front legs outstretched, ready to climb onboard a host who brushes by.

Some ticks will immediately begin to feed on their hosts, and others will travel around the body, looking for a prime location.

How do ticks spread disease?

Ticks contract and transmit bacteria during the feeding process. While feeding, the tick will ingest any bacteria contained in the host’s blood. 

During its next meal, the tick will transmit that bacteria into the new host, through its saliva. Ticks may secrete saliva while feeding for two reasons:

  • It contains anaesthetic properties, which can help ticks avoid detection. That’s one of the reasons why people sometimes don’t remember a bite.
  • It contains anticoagulants, which prevent the blood from clotting. This allows ticks to feed for longer.

Which diseases are found in Australian ticks?

Patients have reported contracting many different pathogens from ticks within Australia, and many have pathology reports which indicate they have Lyme Borreliosis and/or co-infections that are common in Lyme elsewhere.

The Australian Government is aware that Australian ticks are important vectors of human disease, e.g. Rickettsial infections, Q fever and the newly described mammalian meat allergy. However, it will not concede that the Lyme bacteria is carried in ticks in Australia.

A number of vertebrate-infecting tick-borne organisms and other potentially zoonotic organisms were also identified in tick and wildlife samples, including Anaplasmataceae, Rickettsiaceae, Bartonellaceae, Borreliaceae, Babesiidae, Theileriidae, Hepatozoidae, Trypanosomatidae and various arboviral families.” (Study: Metatranscriptomic profiling reveals diverse tick-borne bacteria, protozoans and viruses in ticks and wildlife from Australia, Gofton et al, 2022)

The Federal Department of Health has chosen to describe the patient group experiencing chronic, tick-borne “debilitating symptoms” as having Debilitating Symptom Complexes Attributed to Ticks (DSCATT). This is highly controversial; for more information please see the Australian Lyme page.

See also: Ticks in Australia website

Allergic reactions to ticks

The most common allergic condition is tick paralysis. In more recent years, scientists identified the mammalian meat allergy caused by tick bites. This results in patients experiencing allergic reactions when eating the meat of any mammal.

For more information on tick allergies visit the Tick Induced Allergies Research Awareness website.

Prevention of tick bites

There are ways you can avoid ticks and reduce the risk of being bitten. Before spending time in grassy or bushy areas, in nature, at the beach or at home, please read:

Tips for Preventing Tick Bites factsheet [PDF 800kB].

How to remove a tick

See also Tick Bite First Aid Program.

  1. Firstly, don’t panic. Not all ticks carry pathogens that make people sick.
  2. Remove the tick ASAP.

    According to LDAA’s Scientific Advisory Committee, mechanical removal of the tick as soon as possible is the safest tick removal method. This is endorsed by the World Health Organisation and the Center for Disease Control (US), and is evidence-based.

    Note: If you have a history of allergic reactions to tick bites, a doctor must remove the tick. This should take place at a medical facility, where resuscitation equipment is available.

Using fine-tipped tweezers or a tick prong (see TickEase Australia’s fit-for-purpose tick removal tool, left), press the skin down around the tick’s embedded mouth.

Grip the mouth part firmly, then gently detach the tick using an upward motion with steady, even pressure. Avoid squeezing the tick’s body.

Disinfect the bitten area and the tweezers/prong before and after removal.

Lyme LDAA - Removing a tick with fine-tipped tweezers

Never attempt to kill the tick by burning it, or covering it with methylated spirits, alcohol, petroleum jelly or nail polish remover.

Larvae and nymph removal

Due to their small size and large numbers, these can be difficult to remove via the above method. Individual removal may not be possible.

  • The NSW Northern Beaches Council advise to “Use a permethrin cream to kill them and then shave them from your skin.” Find Permethrin at chemists (NB. Permethrin is poisonous to cats and toxic in waterways).
  • Australian Government agencies recommend using freeze or ether sprays to kill ticks and waiting for them to drop off.
  • The Australian Association of Bush Regenerators state that “Bicarb soda creates an alkaline environment unfavourable to ticks, encouraging the larvae and nymphs to drop off. Add two cups of bicarb soda in a deep bath. Immerse your whole body, stay soaking for as long as possible.”

    They also caution that “Bicarb soda, according to the material safety data sheet ‘May cause skin irritation. Drying or cracking of the skin can occur after prolonged or repeated use.’ Rinse thoroughly after use.”

3. Store the tick

Store the tick in a ziplock plastic bag. Label the bag with your name, date, site of the bite, and the tick attachment time. Place this in your freezer for safe keeping.

Tick borne research programs may like to have your tick. If your doctor doesn’t ask for it, you may like to offer it to a research project. Aust Bio Testing laboratory may accept the tick for testing.

4. Feeling ill after the tick bite

If you notice a rash or become ill (e.g. flu-like symptoms – headaches, fever, aches, swollen glands) following a tick bite, seek treatment as soon as possible to the lessen the likelihood of ongoing symptoms. If you have Lyme, early treatment by a Lyme-literate practitioner is essential if you are to avoid the condition becoming chronic. Please contact us.

Treatment should continue until symptoms have resolved. Please see Lyme Treatment and ensure your practitioner is following the International Lyme and Associated Disease Society’s (ILADS) treatment guidelines.

Unless you have travelled overseas, few Australian doctors will consider the possibility of Lyme, because the Australian Government will not concede that it exists in Australia. Please see Lyme Diagnosis.

If you are unable to get an appointment straight away, take photos of rashes or similarly obvious symptoms to show the medical practitioner or infectious disease specialist. Please contact us.

Copyright Lyme Disease Association of Australia