Media reports about ticks are sometimes frightening. They are often described as disease-spreading “bloodsuckers” whose numbers are growing every year. These kinds of articles can be alarming and are often misleading. Although ticks can carry and spread disease, tick bites do not generally cause health problems.
Any problems are usually only temporary and minor. Tick bites rarely have serious or lasting effects. And there are several things you can do to prevent tick bites and possible complications. So the chances of a tick bite leading to health problems are actually very small. Being aware of this fact can make it easier to deal with these tiny creatures.
The two main diseases that can be transmitted by ticks in Germany are: Lyme disease (also called Lyme borreliosis) and tick-borne encephalitis (TBE), which causes inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) or the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis). Infection is only possible if the tick that bites you is infected, and also manages to transmit the viruses or bacteria.
Lyme disease is much more common than TBE. Generally speaking, TBE is rare, and does not occur at all in many regions. Neither of these two diseases can be transmitted between humans. In other words: if someone is infected, they are not contagious to others.
Your risk of a tick bite will mainly depend on where you spend your time and what you do outdoors. Wearing closed shoes on hikes through tall grass or shrubs can help keep ticks out. Clothes that cover as much of your body as possible – like full-length trousers and long-sleeve shirts – make it harder for ticks to attach. It is easier to see ticks on light-colored clothing.
Ticks may wander around your body for a few hours before biting. So you can prevent bites and substantially lower your risk of Lyme disease or TBE by checking your body for ticks right after spending time in a forest or meadow and removing any you find. Children often won't remember to look for ticks, so they might need a reminder or some assistance. It also makes sense for adults to have someone help, especially to check hard-to-see places.
According to the German Robert Koch Institute, tick repellent sprays offer only temporary protection from ticks. The effect wears off after two hours, so you will need to re-apply the spray on longer walks.
There is a vaccine for TBE. The TBE vaccine may be a good idea if you spend a lot of time outdoors in high-risk areas.
Last but not least, it is important to watch for signs of infection if you have been bitten, and to seek medical attention if any symptoms develop.
Bayerisches Landesamt für Gesundheit und Lebensmittelsicherheit, Nationales Referenzzentrum Borrelien. Borreliose und FSME: Erkrankungen durch Zeckenstiche. June 2, 2015.
Marcu A, Uzzell D, Barnett J. Making sense of unfamiliar risks in the countryside: the case of Lyme disease. Health Place 2011; 17(3): 843-850.
Robert Koch Institute (RKI). Lyme-Borreliose. RKI-Ratgeber für Ärzte. March 01, 2013.
Robert Koch Institute (RKI). Frühsommer-Meningoenzephalitis (FSME). Ratgeber für Ärzte. August 18, 2015.
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