Watch Out For Ticks In The New Forest

Campers and hikers have been warned to beware of a hidden menace that may be lurking in the countryside.

Ticks, tiny spider-like blood-suckers, transmit Lyme disease and can be found in forests, heaths and moorland.

If left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to serious systems affecting the joints, nervous system, and, rarely, the heart.

The number of people affected by Lyme disease in the UK has been rising in recent years.

Experts estimate that between 2,000 and 3,000 infections occur each year in England and Wales, most of which go unrecorded.

In 2010 there were 905 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in England and Wales, compared with 340 in 2002. The vast majority were acquired in the UK rather than overseas, mostly in southern England.

Late spring, early summer and autumn are peak times for tick bites and coincide with people venturing outdoors.

Lyme disease is often acquired through recreational activities such as camping, hiking and mountain biking.

Places where known infections have occurred include popular holiday spots such as Exmoor, the New Forest, the South Downs, the Lake District, the Yorkshire moors and the Highlands.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) urged people to take precautions to reduce their risk of Lyme disease.

Speaking at the start of Tick Bite Prevention Week, which runs until April 1, the HPA's head of zoonotic infections Dr Hilary Kirkbride said: ''With the warmer weather upon us, more people will be planning outdoor activities.

''Being active outdoors is great for our health, but as this is also the time of the year ticks become active, taking some simple precautions can help to keep you and your family safe from tick bites and reduce the risk of Lyme disease.''

The HPA issued a list of key points to remember to avoid being bitten or infected in tick-infested areas.

They include:

:: Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long trousers tucked into socks;

:: Considering the use of insect repellents;

:: Inspecting the skin frequently and carefully removing any attached ticks;

:: Ensuring children's head and neck areas are properly checked for ticks;

:: Taking a shower or having a bath after returning from a tick-infested area.

:: Ensuring ticks are not brought home on clothes, or in the fur of pets.

Dr Kirkbride added:

''It's important that people look out for ticks after visiting affected areas especially in the southern counties of England, the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands to reduce the risk from getting bitten.

''Ticks that can transmit Lyme disease are very small - about the size of a poppy seed - and can easily be overlooked, so it is important to check regularly for attached ticks on the skin.''

An attached tick should be removed with care using tweezers, grasping it close to the skin.

The most common symptom of Lyme disease infection is a rash which slowly spreads from the site of the tick bite.

Although later symptoms can be serious, the infection can usually be treated successfully with antibiotics.

The HPA pointed out that most ticks in the UK are not infectious. Lyme disease incidence in England and Wales remains low compared with some other European countries and North America.