What is the biggest threat to mountain bikers health? The steepest, gnarliest track? That jump? That step down? Too much post ride cake? No. How about a tiny insect the size of a poppy seed. The Tick.
Ticks were once regarded as nothing more than a blood thirsty nuisance, however increasing awareness of Lyme Disease and its potentially long-lasting effects means that riders are now more concerned and aware about ticks.
The tick is an invertebrate related to spiders. There are over twenty species in Britain and they carry a number of diseases, the most well known of which is Lyme disease.
They can be found all over Scotland, particularly in the wetter west, in woodlands, in long grass but basically anywhere we ride. They hang out waiting for a host animal to come past. They bite and attach themselves and do not have any preferences to the animal type; to them a mountain biker is simply meals-on-wheels.
The tick's bite is painless and some ticks can be as small as a spec of dirt, so it can be easy to overlook them. A tick will generally remain attached until it is gorged with blood, increasing in size, before dropping off. This can take between a few days and 2 weeks.
Lyme Disease is on the rise, and you can get it any time of year, but spring and summer are prime time, particularly in long grass and high bracken.
Wear long socks and use insect repellent – you can actually buy riding kit with something called permethrin in, a pesticide, that will kill ticks. If you see a tick on your body use a tick removal tool.
The critters need to be attached for 16 hours before they will transmit the disease too, so checking yourself over after a summer ride is probably worthwhile. Pay particular attention to your hairline, waist band, navel, groin, arm pits, between toes, behind the ears and knees. Where possible brush down bare skin after riding or walking through long grass or bracken.
The best way to look at tick risk is to do a quick risk assessment – is the ground under your wheels, grass or surfaced trail? The longer the grass the higher the risk, if you stay on a surfaced trail with no overhanging vegetation you are unlikely to get a tick.
Firstly, don’t panic if you find an embedded tick – it's most likely that it's not infected, and if you remove it within 24 hours it is unlikely to have passed on the bacteria.
The most reliable method of removing a tick without leaving any remnants in your skin is to purchase a tick hook or card. Tick hooks or cards come in different sizes for different sizes of tick and only cost a few pounds - they also come with instructions for safe removal. Essential kit and should be in your pack. Super important that the tick is removed cleanly in one piece – if it leaves its mouth piece it will transmit bacteria into its host. When removing ticks be purposeful and do it as efficiently as possible, in as few goes as possible, using a twist of the tick tool.
Don’t use a lighted cigarette or match or essential oils to encourage the tick to fall off and don't squeeze the tick (especially one that is engorged with blood) as this will inject the fluid in the tick back into your body.
Lyme disease is notoriously difficult to diagnose as it can demonstrate different symptoms in different people and some of the symptoms are similar to other infections and illnesses.
It takes up to 24 hours before the bacteria are transmitted from the tick to its host and symptoms of infection may appear at any time within two weeks after the bite.
A common sign is a distinctive bulls-eye rash that may appear (though not always) around the area of the bite. As infection spreads several rashes can appear at different sites on the body.
Other symptoms include fatigue, fever, headaches, stiff neck and body aches - similar to the flu. These symptoms may be persistent or may occur intermittently.
If you experience any of these symptoms, see your GP immediately and mention your concerns about Lyme disease. Mention that you have recently visited an area with a high number of ticks – the back story is important in getting a positive diagnosis.
Early treatment with antibiotics is required in order to be effective in lessening the short-term symptoms and the long-term complications. Full recovery is possible, but treatment in the later stages of infection is more difficult and relapses are common.
After several months of being infected, about ½ of those treated with antibiotics develop recurrent attacks of painful and swollen joints (arthritis) that last from a few days to a few months. The arthritis can shift from joint to joint, the knee being most commonly affected. About 10-20% of infected patients will develop chronic arthritis.
Research indicates that the variant found in Scotland is different to that found elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish variant seems to cause more neurological problems with symptoms ranging from stiff neck, severe headache, meningitis, temporary paralysis of the facial muscles (Bell’s Palsy), numbness and poor motor coordination.
A new project that aims to prevent the occurrence of Lyme disease in the Northern Hemisphere was launched in the Highlands in August 2019.
The European Space Agency-sponsored project has received more than half a million pounds of match-funding through the UK Space Agency.
LymeApp, a website and linked app, is being developed by International Disease Mapping Apps (ID MAPPS) Ltd, a new company formed by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), a representative company Highland Health Ventures Ltd (a collaborative partner for NHS Highland), ERGO (Environmental Research Group Limited) and Belgium-based Avia GIS NV.
The £1.1m project uses satellite data to help highlight where the ticks are and where the disease has been detected.
LymeApp combines the satellite information with data from the Scottish Lyme Disease and Tick-borne Infections Reference Laboratory in Inverness, as well as information from general medical practitioners and those exposed to ticks through work or recreation. It will use spatial modelling techniques to produce detailed maps of where the ticks are likely to be and where the disease is reported most often.
Read more here
We know that there are many associated risks with our sport but it is worth bearing in mind that there are 1.3million mountain bike rides to the countryside in Scotland every year and that it is very unlikely that a rider will get ill from a tick bite. However the more vigilant we are to the wee blighters - the better.
You can find out more about ticks and Lyme disease at the following links: