With summer upon us, it’s the ideal time to get out and enjoy the Swiss countryside and all it has to offer, including mountain and valley hikes, camping and picnics…..but remember to watch out for the ticks!
Ticks are small arachnids about the size of a pinhead before they feed on the blood of their animal or human meal. Found the world over, ticks hang out in forests, parks, gardens and playgrounds with tick season usually running from May to November in Switzerland. They like thick undergrowth, dry leaves and low-lying vegetation – often being found on the edge of paths where they attach on to humans and animals as they brush past. Present on the Swiss plateau, ticks don’t like altitude so head above 1500-2000m to avoid them!
Once these opportunistic little vampires have got onto the skin of passers-by, they look for a choice place to bite, preferably a warm, moist area where the skin tends to be a bit softer – the groin, under the arms, around the hairline, behind the ears or behind the knees. And they’re clever things – people don’t usually notice when they’ve been bitten because tick saliva contains a local anaesthetic.
We worry about ticks because of the potential infections they can pass on to humans when they bite.
In Switzerland, ticks may carry the virus that leads to tick-borne encephalitis – a serious infection that can attack the nervous system. Flu-like symptoms are usually the first noticed and then in some people, the infection can spread to infect the brain tissue and the meninges (the protective covering that surrounds the brain and spinal cord). If this happens, high fever, headache, vomiting and a reduced level of consciousness can result. Treatment is supportive with hydration, analgesia, medication to bring down fever, and perhaps steroids to treat any brain inflammation.
Ticks may also carry the bacterium that leads to Lyme disease, the first symptom of which is often a red, circular rash that spreads outwards from around the tick bite. Flu-like symptoms may also be present for some weeks. If recognised at this stage, Lyme disease can be easily treated with antibiotics. If not treated, it is possible for the disease to worsen some weeks, months, or even years after the initial tick bite, affecting the joints, nervous system, skin and heart. Prolonged courses of antibiotics can still be given at this stage and may be curative.
But don’t panic! Not all ticks in Switzerland carry the virus or bacterium that can lead to these infections. And even if a tick is carrying them, the rate of transmission to the human host is not 100%. Just to give an idea, even though there are countless tick bites each year throughout the country, there are about 10,000 cases of Lyme disease annually and about 100-250 cases of tick-borne encephalitis.
Ticks throughout the whole of Switzerland may carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease with 5-50% of ticks being infected depending on the region. But it’s less common that ticks carry the virus that can lead to tick-borne encephalitis. Around 1% in certain areas are carriers of this infection with Northern and Eastern parts of the country more affected. The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health produces a map showing the hotspots: http://map.geo.admin.ch/?layers=ch.bag.zecken-fsme-impfung
How can I protect myself and my family against ticks?
- Wear long trousers, socks and closed shoes in areas where there may be ticks; tuck trousers into socks.
- Avoid walking in the undergrowth.
- Use insect repellent on clothing and skin.
- Talk to your doctor about vaccination against tick-borne encephalitis. The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health recommends vaccination against this disease for adults and children over 6 years living in high-risk areas or regularly visiting them. Note that there is no vaccination against Lyme disease.
- Check yourself and your children regularly for ticks, remembering the areas of the body where they like to hang out and making sure you check clothes before you take them off if you’ve been in a possible tick area.
- And don’t forget to check your pets regularly as well.
What should I do if I find a tick?
- Remove it as soon as possible – it can take up to 24-48 hours for germs to pass from the tick to you so the sooner it is removed, the better. Special tick removers are available from pharmacies.
- Once removed, wash and disinfect the area around the bite.
- If you think some of the tick has been left behind, see a doctor.
- Stay vigilant – see a doctor if you develop any redness around the tick bite, a rash, a fever, or any other symptoms you’re worried about.
For more information, the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel is a great resource: https://www.swisstph.ch/en/
And there is also a smartphone App about ticks in Switzerland, including what to do if you are bitten, and a video showing how to remove a tick. Search “Zecke – Tique” in the App store or on Google Play. The App is available in English.
Stay safe with this knowledge, but still enjoy the wonderful countryside that Switzerland has to offer this summer season.
Submitted by Dr Michelle Wright is a British-trained General Practitioner and Executive Director of HealthFirst, providing dynamic First Aid Training and Health Education in English throughout Switzerland (www.healthfirst.ch). She also has a regular radio show about health on World Radio Switzerland (www.worldradio.ch/healthmatters).
Featured image via MCVOORHIS, Wikimedia Commons