Is That a Tick Bite?

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.

What Does a Tick Bite Look Like?

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 Will a Rash Look Like?

Only some diseases from ticks give you a rash. What it looks like depends on which kind you have.

Lyme disease: Most people with Lyme disease get a rash, but not all of them. It shows up within 3 to 30 days of when you get bit, but it usually takes just over a week.

You’ll see a round or oval area of redness around the bite. At first, it may look just like a reaction to the bite, but the rash gets bigger over days or even weeks. Typically, it reaches about 6 inches wide. It might feel warm, but not usually painful or itchy.

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Most people think of the bull’s-eye rash when they hear about Lyme disease. That happens in less than half the cases, and it comes after the rash has been around for a while.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever: Most people with RMSF get a rash 2 to 5 days after they first get symptoms. It won’t look the same on everyone, but it usually starts as small, flat, pink spots on your wrists and ankles.

It spreads from there to the rest of your body. In about half the cases, the spots turn red or purple after about a week.

Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness: With STARI, you get a rash just like Lyme disease: a red bull’s-eye with the bite in the center.

Tularemia: There are different types of tularemia, but with the most common one, you get a painful, open sore where the tick bit you.

Ehrlichiosis: Children get the rash more often than adults. The rash can vary from small, flat, red, or purple spots to red areas of skin covered with small bumps.

Other Signs and Symptoms

Even if you get something such as Lyme or RMSF, you may not get the rash, so it’s good to know what else to look for. Most diseases from ticks also give you flulike symptoms, such as:

  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Feeling very tired
  • Fever
  • Headache

With Lyme disease, you may also have joint pain.

When Should I Call My Doctor?

It’s important to start treatment for diseases from ticks as soon as possible. If you found the tick and removed it, save it in a sealed container. It helps to have the tick tested so you know what diseases it carried.

Call your doctor: Check with her 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 flulike symptoms, with or without a rash
  • See red streaks or oozing, yellow fluid coming from the bite, meaning the bite is infected.

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Go to the emergency room: Some people have more serious reactions to the bite itself, including:

  • Anaphylaxis. This is 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.

Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you have any of these symptoms:

  • You can’t move your arms, legs, or part of your face.
  • It’s hard to breathe.
  • Your heart feels like it’s fluttering, skipping beats, or beating too hard or too fast.
  • You have a severe headache.
  • You feel weakness in your arms or legs.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on October 17, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever,” “Lyme Disease,” “Tick Bites: First Aid.”

Arkansas Department of Health: “Tickborne Diseases.”

Illinois Department of Public Health: “Common Ticks.”

Seattle Children’s: “Tick Bite.”

John Hopkins Medicine, Rheumatology: “What to Do After a Tick Bite.”

CDC: “Symptoms of Tickborne Illness.”

The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station: “Tick Management Handbook.”

Columbia University Medical Center, Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center: “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.”

Australian Government, The Department of Health: “Tick Bite Prevention.”

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