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Tick Bites: Symptoms and Treatments

When a tick bites

Ticks are common in the United States. They live outdoors in:

  • grass
  • trees
  • shrubs
  • 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.

Pictures of ticks

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 or weeks, 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 found a tick on your skin. After a period of several days or weeks of drawing blood from your body, an engorged tick can detach itself and fall off.

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
  • blisters
  • difficulty breathing

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 the first 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
  • nausea
  • weakness
  • muscle or joint pain or achiness
  • a fever
  • chills
  • swollen lymph nodes

Be sure to seek medical attention immediately if a tick bite results in serious symptoms.

You asked, we answered

  • Does every tick bite require antibiotic treatment?- Anonymous
  • Antibiotics are necessary if you experience a skin infection at the bite site or if you continually scratch and lacerate the skin. If you are bitten by a tick in a high-risk area for certain tick-borne diseases (for example Lyme disease or ehrlichiosis) or if the tick was attached to you for an extended period of time, it is better to be safe than sorry and see your doctor to start antibiotic treatment.

    - Mark R. LaFlamme, MD

What other bites resemble a tick bite?

Tick bites are usually easy to identify. This is because the tick can remain attached to the skin for several days or even weeks after it first bites. Most tick bites are harmless and will cause no physical signs or symptoms.

Tick bites are typically singular because ticks don’t bite in groups or lines. If your bite site becomes red or swells, the bite may resemble a spider bite.

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 the first few weeks after a tick bite. If you begin experiencing unusual symptoms, it’s important that you seek medical care and let your doctor know that a tick recently bit you. Your doctor will conduct tests to determine whether your symptoms are the result of a tick-borne disease.

Diseases that you can contract through a tick bite include:

Where are ticks found?

Ticks live outdoors. They hide in:

  • grass
  • trees
  • shrubs
  • underbrush

If you’re outside hiking or playing, you may pick up a tick. A tick may attach itself to your pet, too. Ticks may stay attached to your pet, or they can migrate to you while you’re touching or holding your pet. Ticks can also leave you and attach themselves to your pets.

Various kinds of ticks exist in large populations throughout the country. Most states have at least one type of tick known to live there. Ticks are at their peak population in the spring and summer months. 

How are tick bites treated?

The most important thing to do when you find a tick on you is to remove it. You can remove the tick yourself with a tick removal device or a set of tweezers. Grasp the tick close to your skin’s surface. Pull away from the skin, trying not to bend or twist the tick. Check the bite site to see if you left any of the tick’s head or mouth parts in the bite. If so, remove those. Clean the bite site with soap and water.

You don’t need to take medicine or see a doctor for a tick bite unless you begin developing symptoms or don’t want to remove the tick yourself. If you remove the tick yourself, be aware of any unusual symptoms, which might indicate you’ve contracted a tick-borne illness as a result of the bite.

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