Tick bites: What you need to know

Reviewed by Tami H. CNP for Virtuwell

Time saver 5 min read

Spending time outside during the spring and summer months? It's important to know that ticks are also out and looking for a meal. If you find a tick on you or suspect that a tick is behind that weird rash or swelling bump, it’s important to know what symptoms are normal and which ones could be a sign of a more serious allergic reaction or tickborne disease.

IN THIS POST

  1. How to remove a tick
  2. Common tick bite symptoms
  3. Home treatment for tick bites
  4. When to seek medical care

Where do ticks live?

From California to Colorado to the Carolinas, ticks are found throughout the U.S. and are increasingly becoming a problem in many areas. If the idea of these little blood-sucking parasitic bugs has your hair standing on end, take heart—while gross, most ticks and their bites, are harmless. However, ticks can carry diseases including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, so it’s important to know what to look out for if you find a tick on you or think you were bit by a tick.

How should I remove a tick?

The surest way to know that you’ve been bit by a tick is when you discover that the little sucker is still attached to you. Once on your body, ticks tend to gravitate towards places where they can easy attach—like your hairline, ears, bellybutton, armpits and groin area. If this happens to you or your child, stay calm. While a perfectly natural reaction, try to resist grabbing and quickly pulling off or scratching at the tick to detach it. A rushed removal approach could result in part of the tick breaking off and being left behind in your skin which could lead to an infection.

To prevent an infection, it’s important to be careful when removing an imbedded tick from your skin.

– Tami H. CNP for virtuwell

Ticks are little and it can be hard to get a good grasp to pull one out of your skin. To make the job easier and more efficient, it’s best to use tweezers. Once armed with your tweezers, the CDC recommends the following steps to remove a tick:

  1. Position the tweezers around the head of the tick, as close as you can get to the skin’s surface.
  2. Apply even pressure to the tick’s body with the tweezers and pull steadily upwards.
  3. Once the tick is removed, inspect the skin. If any parts of the tick are visible, try your best to gently remove them from your skin with the tweezers. Once the bite site is clear, clean the area with warm water and soap or rubbing alcohol.

Now the big question: What the heck should you do with the tick after it’s removed? While an internet search will give you lots of interesting suggestions on how to dispose of a live tick—from dousing it in gasoline to crushing it—the CDC recommends simply flushing the tick down the toilet or putting it in a solution of rubbing alcohol.

How to treat a tick bite

If you find a tick on you or your child, you likely have a lot of questions. What does a tick bite look like? Do tick bites hurt? Do I need antibiotics? The good news is that with most tick bite cases, thoroughly cleaning the skin with soap and water and using an over-the-counter antibiotic cream like Bacitracin™ is all you need to do. Most people don’t experience any symptoms or only very mild ones — like a small raised red bump and minor swelling at the bite site.

If, however, you know or suspect that — for example — you were bit by a deer tick, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice as deer ticks can carry Lyme disease.

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According to medical studies, deer ticks must be attached for 24 or more hours to transmit Lyme disease. However, when you find a tick, it can be really hard to know how long it’s been attached.

If left untreated, tickborne illnesses can lead to serious and long-term health complications. To be safe, it’s a good idea to take action and seek treatment. For deer tick bites, treatment typically includes taking a single dose of antibiotics to help prevent Lyme disease.

Can tick bites make you sick?

Whether you removed a live tick from your skin or think a tick may have bit you, it’s important to be vigilant and monitor for symptoms. While the vast majority of tick bites are harmless, some ticks do carry diseases. Depending on where you live or travel in the country, there are several tickborne illnesses that may be a concern.

Common tickborne diseases

  • Lyme disease — Most common in the Midwest, Northeastern U.S. and northern California. Signs of the disease typically exhibit within 3 to 30 days of a bite and may include a circular rash with a bullseye appearance and flu-like symptoms.
  • Colorado tick fever — Most prevalent in Colorado and the Western U.S. Symptoms can appear within 1 to 14 days of being bit and frequently include fever and fatigue.
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever — Common in the Southwestern U.S., including Arizona and Colorado. Onset of symptoms occurs within 3 to 12 days after a bite and may include a rash, high fever and severe headache.
  • When to contact a medical provider for a tick bite

    When left untreated, tickborne illnesses can progress and lead to serious and long-term complications including muscle weakness, joint pain and swelling and severe headaches. If you experience any of the following symptoms, contact a medical provider right away.

    Concerning tick bite symptoms

    • Fever of 101 degrees or higher
    • Body ache and chills
    • Joint pain and swollen lymph node
    • Severe headache
    • Rash—especially if rash has a bullseye appearance and/or spreads to other parts of your body
    • Develop an open sore and/or infection at bite site

    How to prevent tick bites

    Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the risk of tick bites that don’t involve locking yourself indoors all summer. Despite their super villain blood-sucking reputations, ticks are fairly ill-equipped when it comes to finding hosts. Ticks live in tall grasses, shrubs and trees but can’t fly and have short legs so their best chance of finding a hospitable host is to hitch a ride on an unsuspecting animal or hiker.

    If you plan to spend time outdoors playing near tall grasses or hiking in the woods, it's a good idea to take precautions.

    Tips for preventing tick bites

    • Wear long-sleeve tops and tuck pant legs into socks
    • Stay on hiking or biking trails and avoid straying into heavily wooded areas
    • Use insect repellent that contains ingredients such as DEET, picaridin or Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
    • Remove and wash clothing after spending time outside
    • Shower as soon as possible to prevent ticks from attaching to skin
    • Perform a thorough tick check of yourself, kids and pets

    Don’t let ticks suck the fun out of your summer plans. Take steps to prevent tick bites and, if you or your little one suffers a tick bite, act promptly and seek medical advice and care.

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