Are tick bites harmful?
A lot of bites from little critters looking for their next meal are no big deal. You get a small red bump, maybe it’s itchy, and you move on. But if you have a tick, you want to know about it.
Ticks carry a lot of different diseases, some of them serious. Usually, early treatment is your key to a full and fast recovery. That means you need to know what to look for if a tick bites you.
Ticks are common in the United States. They live outdoors in:
- leaf piles
They’re attracted to people and their four-legged pets, and they can easily move between the two. If you’ve spent any time outdoors, you’ve likely encountered ticks at some point.
Tick bites are often harmless, in which case they don’t cause any noticeable symptoms. However, ticks can cause allergic reactions, and certain ticks can pass diseases onto humans and pets when they bite. These can be dangerous or even deadly.
Learn how to recognize ticks, the symptoms of tick-borne illnesses, and what to do if a tick bites you.
What do ticks look like?
Ticks are small, blood-sucking bugs. They can range in size from as small as a pin’s head to as large as a pencil eraser. Ticks have eight legs. They’re arachnids, which means they’re related to spiders.
The different kinds of ticks can range in color from shades of brown to reddish-brown and black.
As they take in more blood, ticks grow. At their largest, ticks can be about the size of a marble. After a tick has been feeding on its host for several days, they become engorged and can turn a greenish-blue color.
Where do ticks bite people?
Ticks prefer warm, moist areas of the body. Once a tick gets on your body, they’re likely to migrate to your armpits, groin, or hair. When they’re in a desirable spot, they bite into your skin and begin drawing blood.
Unlike most other bugs that bite, ticks typically remain attached to your body after they bite you. If one bites you, you’ll likely know because you’ll have found a tick on your skin. After a period of up to 10 days of drawing blood from your body, an engorged tick can detach itself and fall off.
Ticks aren’t like bugs that bite you and then fly away or scoot off. When one gets on your body, it sets up camp. It finds a place to eat, then burrows its head into your skin and starts feeding. And it’ll stay there for several days.
Most likely, you won’t feel anything because the bite doesn’t hurt, and it isn’t usually itchy. Because ticks are often very small, you might not see it either. At first, it might just look like a fleck of dirt. As it feeds, though it swells up and can be easier to find.
You might get a small red bump where the tick bites you. Some people’s bodies react to ticks with 1 to 2 inches of redness around the bite. That red area won’t get any bigger unless it’s really a rash, which is a sign of disease.
What are the symptoms of a tick bite?
Tick bites are usually harmless and may produce no symptoms. However, if you’re allergic to tick bites, you may experience:
- pain or swelling at the bite site
- a rash
- a burning sensation at the bite site
- difficulty breathing, if severe
Some ticks carry diseases, which can be passed on when they bite. Tick-borne diseases can cause a variety of symptoms and usually develop within several days to a few weeks after a tick bite. Potential symptoms of tick-borne diseases include:
- a red spot or rash near the bite site
- a full body rash
- neck stiffness
- a headache
- muscle or joint pain or achiness
- a fever
- swollen lymph nodes
Be sure to seek medical attention as soon as possible if bitten by a tick in order to be evaluated for any potential treatment.
Can tick bites cause other problems?
Ticks can transmit disease to human hosts. These diseases can be serious.
Most signs or symptoms of a tick-borne disease will begin to occur within a few days to a few weeks after a tick bite. It’s important to see your doctor as soon as you can after a tick bite, even if you don’t have symptoms.
For example, in areas of the country where Lyme disease is common, it may be recommended under certain conditions that you receive treatment for Lyme disease after a tick bite even before symptoms start.
In cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), the disease should be treated as soon as it’s suspected.
If at any point after a tick bite you begin experiencing unusual symptoms such as fever, rash, or joint pain, it’s important that you seek medical care right away. Let your doctor know that a tick recently bit you.
Your doctor will complete a thorough history, exam, and testing to determine whether your symptoms are the result of a tick-borne disease.
Some diseases that you can contract through a tick bite include:
How to Treat a Tick Bite
If you find a tick still on your skin, follow these steps:
- Remove it. Don’t touch the tick with your bare hands. Gently pull it straight out with tweezers. Don’t twist or squeeze it. Make sure you’ve removed the whole tick.
- Save it in a sealed container. It helps to have a doctor look at or test your tick so you know if it was carrying diseases.
- Wash your hands and the site of the bite. Once the tick is gone, use soap and water to make sure you’ve cleaned off any of the tick’s saliva.
It’s important to start treatment for diseases from ticks as soon as possible. If your tick bite is infected or you’ve gotten a disease from it, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help get rid of the infection or disease.
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Call or see your doctor if you:
- Can’t get the tick totally out
- Get a rash. (Even if the rash goes away, that doesn’t mean the disease is gone.)
- Have any flu-like symptoms, with or without a rash
- See red streaks, or yellow fluid oozing from the bite, meaning the bite is infected
Some people have more serious reactions to the bite itself. Go to the emergency room if you have:
- Anaphylaxis. This is a life-threatening reaction that needs medical care right away.
- Tick paralysis. If you have this, you will be unable to move. Paralysis usually goes away within 24 hours of removing the tick.
How can you prevent infections from tick bites?
Preventing tick bites is the best way to avoid a tick-borne illness.
- Wear a long sleeve shirt and pants when walking in the woods or grassy areas where ticks are common.
- Walk in the center of trails.
- Use tick repellent that’s at least 20 percent DEET.
- Treat clothing and gear with 0.5 percent permethrin
- Take a shower or bath within two hours of being outdoors.
- Check skin closely after being in tick-prone areas, especially underarms, behind ears, between legs, behind knees, and in the hair.
It typically takes over 24 hours of feeding for a tick-carrying disease to infect a person. So, the sooner a tick can be identified and removed, the better.