Tick Bites: Symptoms & Treatment

ticks, how to remove a tick, tick bites
A female blacklegged, or deer tick, shown here with its abdomen engorged with a host blood meal, transmits Lyme disease, a disease caused by a spiral-shaped bacterial microbe, Borrelia burgdorferi. This disease is known from Europe, Africa, Asia, and in almost all the United States. It is especially common in the Northeast, in Minnesota and in northern California.
Credit: CDC

Ticks bites are a scourge of summer, but they don't have to be. There are ways to avoid these arachnids, as well as safe ways to remove one that does embed itself in your skin. 

Ticks can transmit diseases, such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, so it’s worth steering clear of bites, if possible. 

What are ticks?

Ticks are arachnids that survive by feeding on blood. There are around 850 species, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), ranging in size from nearly invisible to the size of a pencil eraser.  

Ticks are most common in humid climates, and are usually found in scrubby or grassy places where animal hosts are likely to pass by. Contrary to popular belief, they can't leap from a blade of grass onto a host's skin; rather, they hang on to the plant with their rear legs and hold their front legs aloft, waiting for something to brush by so they can grab on. This behavior is called "questing."

Many ticks won't bite right away, instead preferring to search for a spot with thin skin. They like warmth, and often head for places like the groin, armpit or hair, according to the NIH. For this reason, it's a good idea to check yourself for ticks as soon as you get indoors (or even periodically while you're outside), so you can brush off any that haven't yet latched on. 

tick, tick bites, tick behavior, lyme disease
Ticks seek out a host by hanging on to a blade of grass with their rear legs and holding their front legs aloft, waiting for something to brush by so they can grab on. This behavior is called "questing."
Credit: CDC

Tick prevention and removal

It's no fun to cover up with the sun is hot, but long sleeves and long pants are good protection against ticks. The insecticide permethrin can be sprayed on clothing or gear (not on the skin), and kills ticks on contact. (Some outdoor clothes come pre-treated with permethrin.) Deet is also an effective repellant. As a bonus, both of these chemicals keep mosquitos away, too. 

Check yourself and any pets for ticks after coming in from outdoors, particularly if you've been in woody or grassy areas. If you do find a tick attached to your skin, use fine-tipped tweezers and grab the arachnid as close to the skin as possible. Pull upward evenly and steadily. The goal is to remove the tick whole, without breaking its mouthparts off in your skin. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn against using a match to heat the tick, or smearing it with chemicals such as petroleum jelly. These folk remedies are more likely to make the tick cling tighter, rather than letting go. 

Try to remove the mouthparts with tweezers if they do break off, the CDC advises. If you can't get them out, clean the skin and let it heal. Wash the site of the bite with soap and water and clean it with rubbing alcohol or iodine. 

lyme disease, rash, ticks
A patient shows a bull's-eye rash characteristic of Lyme disease. Typical symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue, and this type of skin rash, called erythema migrans. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system.
Credit: CDC

Tick-borne illnesses and symptoms

Keep a close eye on the site of the bite after the tick is gone. If a rash appears, or if you come down with a fever, see a doctor and be sure to mention the bite and where you picked up the tick. 

Most tick bites don't transmit disease. However, ticks do carry bacterial infections. The most famous is likely Lyme disease, which is caused by bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. Most Lyme disease infections happen in the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest and in Wisconsin and Minnesota, according to the NIH. 

Early symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, chills and joint pain, along with a bull's-eye rash at the sight of the bite. Without treatment, the infection can cause numbness, pain, muscle weakness and cognitive problems. Antibiotics given when symptoms start can prevent the infection from spreading beyond the original bite. 

Another common tick-borne illness is Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which actually occurs most frequently in the eastern United States. Caused by the bacteria Rickettsia rickettsi, this disease also begins with chills, fever and pain, and progresses to include symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and even hallucinations. Treatment with antibiotics usually cures Rocky Mountain spotted fever, according to the NIH. 

Another tick-related disease is babesiosis, which CDC officials warn is on the rise. Ticks pass on the parasite Babesia microti to their hosts, and the parasite infects the red blood cells. 

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Stephanie Pappas

Stephanie interned as a science writer at Stanford University Medical School, and also interned at ScienceNow magazine and the Santa Cruz Sentinel. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
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