Ticks are small bugs that are related to spiders and have been on the earth for at least 90 million years. There are more than 800 kinds of ticks across the globe, but only two tick families can give you illnesses, also known as tick-borne diseases, if they bite you.
Tick bites are treatable, but some of the illnesses you might get are not. Two families of ticks—hard ticks and soft ticks—transmit tick-borne diseases. If a hard tick attaches to you, it could take hours for the tick to give you a disease. If a soft tick attaches to you, it could pass an illness along in under a minute.
These bugs have a four-stage life cycle that depends on their ability to attach to a host and drink blood. If you find a tick on your skin, remove it as soon as possible, and contact your healthcare provider if you think you have a tick-borne disease. Knowing what kind of tick bit you and what stage of life it's in can help healthcare professionals diagnose what disease you’ve picked up.
Life Cycle of a Tick
Ticks begin as eggs and, after two or three years, progress to the adult stage. They feed on blood, also known as a blood meal, and can attach to any kind of animal or human to fill up. Their life cycle includes egg, larva, nymph, and adult.
Egg. Most tick eggs are laid in the springtime at the end of their mother’s life. The eggs are a translucent brown or red color, and are laid in bulk. One tick might lay a few thousand tick eggs in one batch and leave them in soft places protected from weather or other elements.
Larva. This second stage of a tick’s life happens in the summer. They’ll hatch into a small creature with six legs that needs to start taking blood feedings. When the tick larvae attach to a host with a shareable disease, they’ll absorb it and officially be considered infectious. After completing their first blood feeding, the tick larva will fall off their host and molt into the next stage of their life.
Nymph. Sometime between fall and spring, larvae will become tick nymphs. Tick nymphs grow two more legs, making for eight total legs, and love the heat. In weather below 37 degrees Fahrenheit, they typically sleep under the cover of bushes, leaves, or something similar. Once it gets warmer, tick nymphs will start searching for a host to attach to.
Tick nymphs can pass along tick-borne diseases, take on their first spreadable illness, or even absorb a second one. After finishing a blood feeding, they drop to the ground and begin the last stage of their life.
Adult. Adult ticks look for their last host in the autumn. Like tick nymphs, adults go into a sort of hibernation when it gets cold and resume their hunt when the weather warms up. Once a tick adult feeds on its last meal, it'll look for another tick to mate with.
Male adult ticks die after the mating process, and female adult ticks lay their eggs in the springtime before dying, closing the circle of the tick life cycle.
Tick Bite Treatments
When ticks attach to a host, they sometimes release a numbing saliva so that you don’t feel them attaching themselves. If you have spent time in wooded areas, bushy places, or anywhere that you might brush up against leaves or grass, do a thorough check for ticks. Avoid these areas if possible, especially in warm weather, and take precautions to avoid tick bites.
If you find a tick on your body, the best thing you can do is take it out immediately. Follow these steps to remove ticks:
- With a pair of fine-tipped tweezers, grab the tick as close to the head as possible.
- Without squeezing too hard, pull the tick gently up out of the skin. Don’t try to twist or rip the tick out; if you do this, the tick’s mouth might break off and remain in your body.
- Clean the area where the tick was with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.
- Get rid of the tick safely. Don’t squish it; instead, you can drown it in rubbing alcohol, cut off its air supply in an airtight container, or flush it.
Keep an eye on the affected area. If you get a rash, come down with a tick-borne fever, or have any unusual symptoms, like tick paralysis, within a few weeks of taking the tick out, contact your healthcare provider.
There is a wide variety of tick-borne illnesses you could get from a tick, so to help get an accurate diagnosis, try and remember when you were bit, what the tick looked like, and where you picked the tick up.