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Ticked off

Julie Thomson

Julie Thomson

September 7, 2012

I AM one for laying out the welcome mat to all and sundry in the garden. All creatures great and small are free to drop in and wander – even the munchers and nibblers, provided they leave alone a decent amount for me to enjoy. The birds are increasing in number and volume at the dawn chorus. Is their birdcall joy at the new day? Or as Anna Funder asked in her marvellous novel  All That I Am, a check to see who has made it through the night? But some recent intruders have really got under my skin – literally – so I issue a warning about them to the unsuspecting. But be alert not alarmed.

Ixodes holocyclus on young girl – note lymph node swelling in neck

Here in Queensland even as the chill of winter clings to the earth, I have already had seven paralysis ticks (Ixodes holocyclus) lodge on me in the garden over the past four weeks. My other half this week had two embedded in his back for 24 hours before an unsightly lump they brought on caused a kerfuffle among his workmates and he was whisked up to hospital for the ticks’ removal. Interestingly, the hospital emergency department doctors could not extract them with forceps, so a minor surgical procedure involving scalpels and anaesthetic, took place, with a group of young interns watching fascinated, one even taking a picture of the bloodied site for posterity.

It’s only early spring and the summer parasites like ticks are out in force already and you don’t have to be among particularly long or unruly vegetation to attract them. Not wishing to be a panic merchant here,  although the term “blood-sucking” is quite emotive and has a way of sending some into mild hysteria, but a bit of attention and prevention can reduce the discomfort and annoyance of tick bites.

Don’t let their presence put you off a pleasurable workout in the foliage, but it is smart to check your head and body thoroughly at the end of the day, as they can hide cleverly in the damnedest places. If possible, get your significant other to look where you cannot. And don’t assume bush ticks belong in “the bush”. They are anywhere and everywhere there’s grass or ferns growing. They are all along the eastern seaboard of Australia, and about 30 km inland, mostly in moist, humid and bushy areas and temperate rainforests.

There has been several near-death experiences with tick-infested pets on our acreage over the years, caused by undetected attachments which led to partial paralysis, despite our vigilantly applying the tick preventative collars, potions and pills. The vet admitted there was no foolproof medication and no substitute for a thorough hands-on search of the animals fur every day to be sure of early detection.

You can bone up on the life cycle of the tick and its whereabouts, removal procedures etc at The Outdoor Type

Humans are usually victims of the little bloodsuckers at the larvae or nymph stage. Needing blood to grow to the next stage of their life cycle, they “quest”, that is climb up blades of grass or fern fronds and wave their little legs, to catch on to a passing animal or human. Hey, they were vampires before any of the latest trendoids.

Head, neck and hairy areas are ticks’ favourite lodging places, but a few years ago, my sight-challenged husband overlooked one in his eye socket for 48 hours, thinking it was a scratch.

Even at larvae stage, ticks can cause an itch and red lump if they land on the skin and are not mature enough to attach.


Ticks are more easily seen on light-coloured clothing. When you’re gardening, wear a hat, long-sleeved shirt and tuck trousers into socks. If you live in hot climes and cannot bear all that covering, then at least apply a tropical grade insect repellant over any exposed skin.

Ticks are known to have crawled over a host for up to two hours before attaching themselves, which explains why one that snuck up my sleeve ended up lodged in my cleavage.

Illustration by Blair Paterson

I have always removed them with minimum drama, using forceps and then applying antiseptic. There is also a process of tugging them out using cotton or dental floss, but I don’t think I have digital dexterity or the knotting knack for that. The important thing is to try and grab the tick around the mouth, but as we are talking about something about the size of one of these letters,  good luck with that precise manoeuvre.

Some people smother the tick first with vaseline and band-aid. The old methylated spirits routine as been dissed. Apparently it distresses the ticks and they offload more poison into the host. So does squeezing them.

Tick lodged in human host

A friend sent advice from a paediatrician who uses liquid soap to remove ticks from difficult areas such as between the toes or in the middle of head of dark hair. She applies liquid soap to a cotton ball, swabs the tick with it for about 20 seconds and out they come on their own, stuck to the cotton ball! Apparently school nurses do this and it saves many a nervous child from getting into a lather!

Ticks are bothersome rather than catastrophic, but they can sometimes cause a nasty allergic reaction other than an itch, lump or mild nausea. And if the bite wound is not cleaned, infection can set in.

So a good body scan after your shower following time rustling among the plants is a plan to stick to from now.

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Matt Popplewell
Matt Popplewell
11 years ago

A danger to our feathered creatures too!!. We actually had a chook that was laying distorted eggs and then discovered it had a paralysis tick on its comb. Mighty tricky to get it off a chook too..but it survived. Our son had one and he was sick with flu like symptoms for days, so despite their size they are a serious pest in our Queensland gardens and according to our vet, the tick season has started early in our Eumundi hinterland.

Alison Stewart
Alison Stewart
11 years ago

We have a real problem with ticks in Scotland too. Ours is Ixodes ricinus and the host is often deer. There are all the problems you describe, Julie, but with the added fear of Lyme disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which is carried by the ticks. After removing a tick from my arm last year I noticed, a few days later, a characteristic “bulls eye” reddened circle around the site of the bite. My doctor wasn’t sure whether it really was a Lyme disease infection but recommended a course of antibiotics just in case.

Alison Stewart
Alison Stewart
11 years ago
Reply to  Alison Stewart

PS The mesh jacket with integral hood that I wear to keep off the West Highland midge, together with gloves, and trousers tucked into socks, works a treat to keep the ticks off too (see the GardenDrum snippet for 23 June). The only problem is that I get very hot working in all that gear, even in the cool Scottish summer, so in Australia you’d probably explode!