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.
How to Identify Tick Bites
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 will 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.
Ticks typically bite people in warm, moist, or hairy areas, like the:
Once a tick finds a place to feed, it will stay there anywhere from a few days to 2 weeks. Ticks bite once and use that site to feed on your blood until they’re full. A tick will fall off on its own once it’s full. You won’t get multiple bites from a tick. Most tick bites are painless and cause only a minor reaction. Only sometimes do they transmit disease.
Tick Bite Symptoms
Tick bites often cause a reaction on your skin, even when they’re not infected or disease-causing. Typical symptoms of a tick bite may include:
- A small hard bump or sore
Unlike other bites, tick bites don’t usually have fluid or pus in them, unless they’re infected.
Most diseases from ticks also give you flu-like symptoms, such as:
With Lyme disease, you may also have joint pain.
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 3-30 days after you were bitten, 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 it’s not usually painful or itchy.
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.
On lighter skin, the faint color and border of the rash might be more noticeable. But on darker skin, it may be less visible.
You could also notice a crusted center within the rash. If you have darker skin, this may look like a deeper-colored patch of skin. On lighter skin, it may appear as a red scabby area.
Lyme disease rashes can show up in different shapes and colors. Rashes on light skin tend to be redder and bluer, while rashes on dark skin may be a deeper blue or purple. But everyone's rash will look slightly different.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever: Most people with RMSF get a rash 2-5 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.
While the spots may be more noticeable on lighter skin, they may be fainter on darker skin. This means that Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be easily missed in people with dark skin.
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.
How to Treat a Tick Bite
If you find a tick still on your skin, follow these steps:
- Remove it. Don’t touch the tick with your bare hands. Gently pull it straight out with tweezers. Don’t twist or squeeze it. Make sure you’ve removed the whole tick.
- Save it in a sealed container. It helps to have a doctor look at or test your tick so you know if it was carrying diseases.
- Wash your hands and the site of the bite. Once the tick is gone, use soap and water to make sure you’ve cleaned off any of the tick’s saliva.
It’s important to start treatment for diseases from ticks as soon as possible. If your tick bite is infected or you’ve gotten a disease from it, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help get rid of the infection or disease.
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Call or see your doctor 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 flu-like symptoms, with or without a rash
- See red streaks, or yellow fluid oozing from the bite, meaning the bite is infected
Some people have more serious reactions to the bite itself. Go to the emergency room if you have:
- Anaphylaxis. This is a 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.
How to Prevent Tick Bites
You can lower your chance of tick bites by preparing yourself before you go outside and knowing what to look for once you’re back inside. Use these tick tips to protect yourself:
- Know where ticks lurk. You’re most likely to come into contact with ticks in long grassy, brush, or in wooded areas. You can even get them from brushing up against an animal that has one. Be on the lookout when you camp, garden, hunt, or spend time outdoors.
- Treat clothes with permethrin. Products with 0.5% permethrin help repel ticks. You put it on your clothes, shoes, and gear, not skin.
- Treat skin with insect repellents. If you know you’ll be in a tick-friendly area, use products with DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone on your skin to help make sure ticks and other bugs buzz off.
- Hike smart. When you’re outdoors, try to avoid places where you’ll rub against trees, plants, or grass. Walk in the center of trails.
- Do tick checks. Spend time looking for ticks on your body, pets, clothing, and gear after you come in from time outdoors. Use a mirror for hard-to-see areas of your body, and don’t forget to check your scalp.
- Wash off. Taking a shower within 2 hours of being outdoors can reduce your chance of getting a tick-borne disease. Running water and scrubbing with soap can help remove ticks from your body. Wash laundry on hot to rid your clothes of any hidden ticks.