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A tick is a small parasite from the same family as spiders. Ticks need blood to complete their life cycle, and they may bite humans. Some transmit diseases.
Ticks are common in many parts of the world, including the United States. Some tick-borne diseases can have severe complications, so people should always avoid tick bites when possible.
This article explores how to recognize when a tick bite needs attention and when to see a doctor.
Tick bites are not always harmful, but some can transmit certain diseases. These can lead to severe complications, but timely treatment with antibiotics will often resolve the problem.
A wide range of tick-borne diseases can occur in the U.S., including:
Ticks can be red, brown, or black. They range from around 0.5–3.0 millimeters (mm) in length, depending on the type of tick and stage in its life cycle. After feeding, the largest ticks may expand to 11 mm, which is around half an inch. They have eight legs.
Unlike other bugs, a tick may stay attached to the skin for several days. Most people notice a tick bite when they find the tick still attached.
If a rash or other symptoms appear after a tick bite, this may indicate that the tick has transmitted an infection. It is worth noting that a person may receive a bite without realizing it. People who are in areas with ticks should check for them on their clothes and body daily.
Many tick bites are harmless, but some transmit infections that need medical attention.
A person should seek advice if they develop symptoms that may indicate a tick-borne disease.
The symptoms will depend on the disease, but here are some common symptoms:
- body and muscle aches
- joint pain
- a rash
- a stiff neck
- facial paralysis
If a person has symptoms of a tick-borne illness, a doctor will provide treatment as necessary. Often, this is with antibiotics.
If Lyme disease is common in the area, the doctor may recommend prophylactic antibiotic treatment. In other words, if a person knows a tick has bitten them, the doctor may give them antibiotics just in case, to prevent an infection. However, experts do not recommend prophylaxis for all tick-borne diseases.
There are many types of tick, and not all of them bite people. Ticks live in most regions in the U.S., but the type depends on the region.
Ticks usually live outdoors, in trees, grass, and shrubs. They can also be present in yards and even be found inside the house if they travel inside on pets or humans.
Ticks do not fly or jump onto people. They wait on leaves or bushes for a person or animal to brush by and climb on them as they pass.
Ticks are present all year, but they are most active from April to September, when the weather is warmer. People should check for likely activity in areas where they live or are planning to travel.
Avoiding areas where ticks live can be difficult, but there are ways to prevent bites.
Before they go outside here are some steps people can take to reduce the risk:
- Finding out where ticks are likely to be and take precautions.
- Wearing enclosed shoes, long-sleeved shirts, and tucking pants into socks.
- Tying up long hair.
- Avoiding sitting directly on the ground.
- Wearing light-colored clothing to make ticks easier to spot.
Before going into an area where ticks may be present, people can apply insect repellents containing the following to skin and clothing:
- ethyl butyl acetylamino propionate
- oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE)
- para-menthane-diol (PMD)
Special considerations for children include:
- avoiding the use of OLE and PMD before the age of 3 years
- not using insect repellents before the age of 2 months
- avoiding products containing more than 30% DEET
Insect repellents are available for purchase in drugstores and online.
When back indoors, people should check for ticks on all of their clothing, as well as on any gear and pets. People should also shower and check their body thoroughly.
When looking for ticks on the body, be careful to check:
- the hair
- the ears
- the armpits
- the belly button
- the waist
- behind the knees
- between the legs
It is essential to remove a tick from the skin as soon as possible. Here are some tips for how to do that:
- Use a fine-tipped tweezer.
- Grasp the tick as close to the surface of the skin as possible.
- Applying even pressure, pull upward away from the skin. Avoid bending the tick as this can separate the mouth, which may remain in the skin.
- If it is not possible to remove the tick’s mouthpart, clean the area and leave it to heal.
- Clean the bite area and hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
- Place a live tick in a sealed bag, put it in alcohol, wrap it in tape, or flush it down a toilet. Never crush a tick with the fingers.
- In some areas, doctors advise keeping the tick, and they will send it to a laboratory for testing. Check the recommendations for the area. Alternately, a person may want to take a picture of the tick, which can help their doctor identify the type of tick and determine their risk of a tick-borne disease
Ticks are common in many parts of the U.S.
Not all ticks are harmful, but some can transmit diseases, including Lyme disease, Colorado tick fever, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Some of these diseases can lead to severe complications.
Treatment for tick-borne diseases usually involves antibiotic medication. Tick bites can be hard to prevent, but people can take precautions to reduce the risk.