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Are tick bites harmful?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tick bites are often easy to identify. This is because the tick can remain attached to the skin for up to 10 days after it first bites. Most tick bites are harmless and will cause no physical signs or symptoms. Only certain types of ticks transmit disease.
Tick bites are typically singular because ticks don’t bite in groups or lines.
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:
Ticks live outdoors. They hide in grass, trees, shrubs, and 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, typically April through September.
- Grasp the tick as close as you can to your skin’s surface.
- Pull straight up and away from the skin, applying steady pressure. Try 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 water and apply an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, or iodine.
- Once you’ve removed the tick, submerge it in rubbing alcohol to make sure it’s dead. Place it in a sealed container.
See your doctor as soon as possible to find out 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.
It’s important to see your doctor soon after a tick bite so you can talk about your risks, what complications to look for, and when to follow up.
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 under arms, behind ears, between legs, behind knees, and in 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.