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Another take on ticks: ’tis the season

A tick feeding. Photo Mary Gardner.

Mary Gardner

Without my friend noticing, a creature smaller than a little fingernail was perched on a stem of grass and leapt to the safety of his sock.

A brave act on the part of a blind and deaf animal, following the whiff of butyric acid in the sweat of mammals.

Although starving, the little one then climbed right up to the base of my friend’s neck and dug in. Literally.

That, for you, is a tick.

Using sharp jagged mouth-parts, the tick pierced the skin and burrowed, reaching safety as well as a supply of fresh blood. He settled in for a ten-day leisurely feed. But my friend noticed some irritation and spotted him. I sprayed the animal with an ether, freezing it to death.

All that advice to cover ticks with cremes or simply remove with tweezers? These are overseas tips, all wrong for the Australian paralysis tick Ixodes holocyclus. This is the most common tick found on people in our eastern seaboard. The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) finds that this tick has different mouth-parts and feeding habits unlike overseas ticks.

Paralysis ticks have toxins in their saliva

The paralysis tick has toxins in its saliva. Different people’s reactions are unpredictable but can be life-threatening. Given this unique situation, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) says ‘freeze it, don’t squeeze it’.

Use FIVE squirts of a dimethyl ether spray. This will kill the tick in place, minimising its fright response. A scared tick injects more toxins. Once dead, the tick will fall out, or can be removed with tweezers.

Human reactions to the tick toxins can range from mild itching to respiratory shock, paralysis and death. Another side effect is a subsequent allergy to red meat and gelatin products. Repeated tick bites may start an allergic reaction or increase its severity.

In February 2019, research began into what afflicts people here who have Debilitating Symptoms Complex Attributed To Ticks (DSCATT). Overseas, Lyme’s disease is caused by a bacterium which, to date, has not been found in wild Australian ticks. But as ticks worldwide are renowned for carrying pathogens, researchers suspect that there will be some sort of bacteria or virus living in Australian ones too.

Seventeen species bite people

Of the seventy species of Australian ticks, only seventeen bite people. The paralysis tick belongs to one group of fifty-six species called hard ticks (family Ixodidae). Their mouth-parts stick out from their heads. They live in low vegetation, sniffing for mammals.

Soft ticks (fourteen species, family Argasidae) have mouth-parts which are held under the body. They travel into the burrows of animals upon which they feed.

All ticks are Arachnids, members of the spider family. As they grow from egg to juvenile to adult, they start with six legs but finally they have eight. They must have a blood feed at each life-stage.

Some species live their whole life eating the blood of one host. Other species find a host, grow, drop off and then find a new host species. Still others, the paralysis tick included, drop off a host at each life stage, working through three different host species over their lifetime.

Some ticks are known for carrying harmful bacteria. In Australia, the ornate kangaroo tick carries Queensland tick typhus, and a reptilian tick carries Q fever.

Ticks better researched overseas

Overseas, ticks have been better researched and are well known for also carrying one of six groups of viruses. Only mosquitoes outdo ticks for transmitting viruses.

The precise match between tick, virus and host is critical. The tick needs blood for nutrition. The virus needs the host’s cells particular DNA or RNA processing systems. The virus subverts the system to make more copies of itself. Often this harms, but does not necessarily kill the host.

The study of ticks and viruses expands our philosophy and cosmology. Biologist Jakob Johann von Uexküll (1864-1944) explained that ticks and every other creature experienced life according to their umwelt: the world revealed to them by their own unique senses and particular needs. This species-specific perspective became a main concept in neurophilosophy. 

Another biologist J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1966) first proposed that viruses played a vital role in the origin of life on earth. In 2009, the idea was expanded by Eugene Koonin. His scenario about a primordial virus world and early evolution suggests viruses are integral to life.

Studies also reveal that viruses are ancient and sometimes very useful. One startling example is about ancient viral infections of early mammalian cells. Viral genes were shared and exist today in modern mammalian cells. They code for protective layers around an embryo. This ‘hides’ the stranger from the mother’s immune system, allowing growth in utero. Otherwise the mother would create antibodies against the embryo.

A final thought. All ticks may well have evolved in the Australian sector of Gondwana in the Devonian era, 398 million years ago. They lived with amphibious labyrinthodonts, swamp predators. Such teams were ancestors of all of us terrestrial animals and our many ticks.


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10 responses to “Another take on ticks: ’tis the season”

  1. Robyn B says:

    Freeze not squeeze…… but if you are out in the bush and feel a tick on you, you have already upset it and its injecting poison into you….so isn’t it better to just get it off asap?

    • J.Pearce says:

      If the tick is disturbed but still attached, some people can have an allergic reaction to the chemicals in the tick’s saliva that is injected/released when the tick is removed fully with tweezers, fingers etc. The allergic reaction may be a life-threatening anaphylaxis. You don’t want to find out you have an allergy to tick saliva when you are on your own and/or far from help.
      Thus the “Freeze Don’t Squeeze” method is the better removal method according to research conducted by (Australian) Associate Professor Sheryl Van Nunen.
      To remove baby/nymph ticks while they are embedded and feeding, Lyclear (a scabies cream) is the recommended method. https://apallergy.org/DOIx.php?id=10.5415/apallergy.2019.9.e15

  2. Sue James says:

    I have Lymes Disease diagnosed by blood test sent to USA.
    I have only ever been bitten by ticks in Australia and know the bite that caused this as I was so very very ill.
    Australian Vets also admit that Dogs can get Lymes disease here and the bacteria has been found in Australian
    echidnas, so why will Medicare not help?

  3. m gardner says:

    As to your comment Robyn: the tick is happy to go along for a bumpy ride for about 10 days. Always carry a freeze remedy. But from tick’s point of view, getting on is fine whether to back to car or Emergency or wherever as long as it stays tightly embedded. The big worry is that for each person, allergic reactions can come up OR are known to happen and so killing and removing should be handled properly and as soon as possible. Please see this link for more details. Also check with your GP and depending on your known or suspected sensitivities,have an adrenelin autoinjector epipen at all times. Right up there with taking water with you when you go out walking. https://allergy.org.au/patients/insect-allergy-bites-and-stings/tick-allergy

  4. m gardner says:

    As to your comment Sue James: This is the latest from the Aus Govt about Lyme disease and debilitating tick borne disease https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/ohp-lyme-disease.htm The govt appears to be midway in a process of identifying what constitutes the sickness and the evidence required https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/4594AB5B9B2A90D4CA257BF0001A8D43/$File/DSCATT-Think-Tank-2019.pdf

  5. Kate R says:

    Thanks for the great information Mary. Does “FIVE squirts of a dimethyl ether spray” also apply to animals, like dogs?

  6. Kate Flick says:

    I have had Queensland tick Typhus about 3 years ago and I am currently suffering a lack of energy I am wondering if anyone knows if this is an ongoing symptom of the typhus? Does the toxin remain in your body? has anyone else experienced this? Cheers

  7. Len Heggarty says:

    The way I comprehend the passage as I walk through the words, I think this article deserves a tick. Easily an A plus in tickling and affecting the thin skins of bushwalkers as they walk up andf along the track of comprehension.

  8. Katrina Astill says:

    It took me 4 years to find a GP who was willing to do tick testing. It came back positive for Queensland Tick Typhus. I’ve been so unwell l’ve had to take an early retirement. Why won’t GPs test for it when my lnfectious Disease Specialist said it was not uncommon? Tests also not covered by medicare.

  9. m gardner says:

    Reply to Katrina and others
    https://www.lymedisease.org.au/our-work/
    Campaign. You are members of a club you did not want to join
    and are the ones who can push the envelope of medicine and care in Australia.
    Much is unknown about Australian health threats as they are unique and not copies of Northern Hemisphere or other countries where more research is done (medical, zoolological botanical etc)
    Go for it!

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