Tick bites are often harmless and don’t cause any symptoms. However, ticks can cause allergic reactions, and certain ticks can pass diseases on to humans and pets when they bite. These diseases can be dangerous or even life threatening when not treated promptly.

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 can move between the two with ease. If you’ve spent any time outdoors, you’ve likely encountered ticks at some point.

In this article, we help you identify ticks and tick bites, along with the symptoms of tick-borne illnesses, and what to do if a tick bites you.

Ticks are small, blood-sucking bugs. They 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 grow to about the size of a marble. After a tick feeds on its host for several days, it swells up and can turn a greenish-blue color.

Check out this image galley for pictures of ticks.

Ticks prefer warm, moist areas of the body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), once a tick gets on your body, it’s likely to migrate to the following areas:

  • armpits
  • groin
  • hair
  • back of your knees
  • inside your belly button
  • around your waist
  • inside and around your ears

However, ticks don’t always migrate. If you’ve been in a situation where you might have gotten a tick bite, be sure to check your entire body.

When a tick reaches a desirable spot, it bites into your skin and begins drawing blood. Unlike most other bugs that bite, ticks typically remain attached to your body after they bite you.

If a tick bites you, you’ll likely know because you’ll find a tick on your skin. You probably won’t feel the tick biting you as the bite is occurring.

After a period of up to 10 days of drawing blood from your body, an engorged tick will detach itself and fall off.

It’s important to contact 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, doctors may recommend under certain conditions that you receive treatment for Lyme disease after a tick bite even before symptoms start.

Ticks can remain attached to the skin for up to 10 days after they first bite. They get bigger and easier to spot as time goes on.

Ticks typically bite once, instead of in clusters or lines. Most harmless tick bites cause no physical signs or symptoms.

Some cause a red or discolored bump to appear that looks similar to a mosquito bite.

A Lyme disease bullseye rash can appear anywhere from 3 to 30 days after you’ve been bitten. You may also see more than one rash. The rash may get larger over the course of several days, reaching 12 inches in width.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction to a tick bite

Tick bites are usually harmless and may produce no symptoms. But if you’re allergic to tick bites, you may experience:

Symptoms of tick-borne diseases

Ticks can pass potentially severe diseases to human hosts. Most signs or symptoms of a tick-borne disease will begin within a few days to a few weeks after a tick bite.

Tick-borne diseases

Potential symptoms of tick-borne diseases include:

Symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever

People who suspect they may have Rocky Mountain spotted fever should seek treatment as soon as they suspect it. Symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever include:

  • vomiting
  • a sudden high fever around 102 or 103°F (38 to 39°C)
  • headache
  • abdominal pain
  • rash
  • muscle aches

Be sure to seek medical attention as soon as possible after a tick bite.

Your doctor can explain your risks, what complications to look for, and when to follow up. Your doctor will also complete a thorough history, exam, and testing to determine whether your symptoms are the result of a tick-borne disease.

The most important thing to do when you find a tick is to remove it. This may help stave off a tick-borne illness. Don’t remove it if you have an allergic reaction, this may release more of the allergen and cause a worsening reaction.

Make sure to clean the area thoroughly with antibacterial cleanser or ointment after the tick has been removed. Your doctor may wish to send the tick to a laboratory to analyze what type it is, and to determine if it is carrying any pathogens.

Place the tick into a lidded jar or sealed ziplock bag and bring it with you to your doctor’s appointment.

Treatment will depend on whether you’re experiencing an allergic reaction to the tick bite, or have a tick-borne disease.

How to remove a tick

You can remove the tick yourself with a tick removal tool or with a set of fine-tipped tweezers. Make sure your hands and whatever tool you use is clean, and follow these steps:

  1. Grasp the tick as close as you can to your skin’s surface.
  2. Pull straight up and away from the skin, applying steady pressure. Try not to bend or twist the tick.
  3. 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 carefully.
  4. Clean the bite site with water and apply an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, or iodine.
  5. Once you’ve removed the tick, submerge it in rubbing alcohol to make sure it’s dead.
  6. Place it in a sealed container. Saving the tick provides evidence of a tick bite for the doctor. It might be a good idea to label the container with the date and location of the bite.

Contact your doctor as soon as possible after you’ve been bitten by a tick. A doctor can determine if any treatment is necessary, based on the type of tick that bit you.

Different parts of the country have different risks when it comes to diseases from tick bites. If you live in an urban area without many ticks and get bitten elsewhere, your usual doctor may not readily identify the tick. If that is the case and you’re uneasy, seek another opinion about treatment.

Let your doctor know if you were bitten in a geographical location known for severe tick-borne diseases, like the Western or Northeastern United States.

You should also let your doctor know if you developed any of the following symptoms after your tick bite:

Preventing tick bites is the best way to avoid a tick-borne illness. Here are some prevention tips:

  • Wear a long-sleeved 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 2 hours of being outdoors.
  • Check skin closely after being in tick-prone areas, especially under arms, behind ears, between legs, behind knees, and in hair.

It typically takes more than 24 hours of feeding for a person to get a tick-borne disease. So, the sooner you can identify and remove a tick, the better.

Are tick bites itchy?

A tick bite can cause immediate, intense itching in some people due to the toxins and irritants in tick saliva. However, itching doesn’t always occur. For this reason, if you spend time in a tick-infested area, it’s important to check your whole body for ticks after you leave.

If a tick bite leads to Lyme disease, it can also lead to the development of lesions on the skin known as erythema migrans (EM). These often don’t trigger any further symptoms, but some people report that they feel itchiness and burning around the area of the lesion.

Can you get Lyme disease if you don’t see a ring around the tick bite?

Yes. The EM rash is often a surefire sign that you’ve been bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease. However, not everyone gets the rash. Since it doesn’t itch or hurt, it may also be possible to get the rash and not notice it.

Can ticks carry diseases other than Lyme disease?

Yes. Ticks can carry many diseases such as Rocky Mountain Fever. The diseases ticks carry vary from geographic region to region.

Where do ticks live?

Ticks live outdoors. They hide in grass, trees, shrubs, and underbrush.

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

Various kinds of ticks live in large populations throughout the country. Most states have at least one type of tick that lives there. Ticks are at their peak population in the spring and summer months, typically April through September.

Tick bites are often symptom-free and harmless. However, ticks can carry harmful diseases like Lyme disease.

If you notice a bullseye-shaped rash, fever, chills, and body aches, it’s vital that you ask a doctor about the next steps.

You can prevent tick bites by using 20 percent DEET or 0.5 percent permethrin, wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants while in tick-prone areas, and staying away from the edges of any walking trails where ticks hide.