A tick is a small eight-legged bug in the same family as spiders. Ticks suck blood to complete their lifecycle and regularly bite humans. Some transmit diseases although most are harmless.
Ticks can bite anywhere on the body. They are often attracted to moist areas, such as the groin or underarms.
They are common in many parts of the world, including the United States.
This article explores how to recognize when a tick bite is becoming dangerous and when to see a doctor.
Not all tick bites cause illness and most are harmless. However, some types of ticks can transmit certain diseases.
Treatment for many of these diseases involves taking a prescribed course of antibiotics.
Tick-borne diseases include the following:
Lyme disease can occur when a tick bite transmits a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi.
In the U.S., Lyme disease is most often transmitted by the black-legged tick. Black-legged ticks, or deer ticks, are mainly found in the north-eastern and upper-Midwestern part of the U.S.
Usually, the tick must be attached to the skin for 36 to 48 hours to pass on the disease. Symptoms may start occurring about 3 to 7 days from the time of infection.
Lyme disease symptoms might include:
- a headache
- joint and muscle aches
- a rash at the site of the bite that may start to resemble a bull's-eye as it enlarges, commonly occurs.
Complications may occur if a person does not receive treatment while Lyme disease is in its early stage. Late-term symptoms can develop weeks or months after the initial bite.
These can include:
- nerve pain
- short-term memory problems
Rocky Mountain spotted fever
The American dog tick spreads Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) to humans. These ticks are active east of the Rocky Mountains and on the Pacific.
- a high fever
- a rash
- muscle pain
RMSF can lead to fatal blood vessel and organ damage if a person does not receive quick treatment.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who receive treatment within 5 days of symptoms starting have fewer complications than those who get treated later.
Colorado tick fever
A bite from the Rocky Mountain wood tick can cause Colorado tick fever.
This tick is most common in the high-altitude western states at elevations. It is especially common in Colorado.
Symptoms usually take a few days to develop after the bite and may include:
- a fever that comes and goes
- body aches
Some people also develop vomiting, stomach pain, and a skin rash.
There is no specific treatment for Colorado tick fever. People can treat fever and muscle aches with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Most people only develop mild symptoms and recover in 1 to 2 weeks.
A bacterium called Francisella tularensis spreads a rare disease called tularemia.
The lone star tick, wood tick, and dog tick can transmit the infection. There are reports of tularemia in most states, but it is most common in the south-central part of the U.S.
There are different forms of tularemia depending on how the bacteria enters the body. Ulceroglandular is the form of the disease that can be transmitted through a tick bite. Symptoms may include a skin ulcer at the site of the bite, fever, and swollen glands.
Treatment usually includes taking antibiotics for several weeks.
Ticks vary in size and can be red, brown, or black.
Small ticks may measure around 1 to 2 millimeters (mm), which is about the size of a pinhead. Larger ticks tend to be about 3 to 5 mm. Ticks become larger as they consume more blood, and they may grow to about the size of a marble.
A tick bite does not always cause symptoms. When they do, the following may develop:
- a raised bump at the point of the bite
- a burning sensation in the area of the bite
The main way to tell the difference between a tick bite and bites from other bugs is that when a tick bites a human, it often stays attached to the skin for several days.
Most people notice a tick bite when they find the tick still attached.
Various types of ticks bite humans. In the U.S., ticks tend to be more common in the Midwest and on both coasts.
Ticks live in trees, grass, and shrubs. They are more active in April through September, as they typically prefer warmer months. Anyone who spends time outdoors, especially in wooded or grassy areas, is at risk for a tick bite.
The risk for developing a tick-borne illness depends where a person lives in the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 96 percent of people with Lyme disease caught it in one of 14 states, mostly in the eastern or upper Midwestern states.
When to see a doctor
A tick bite is often harmless, but knowing when to see a doctor could prevent a potentially fatal tick-borne disease.
Seek medical assistance if you cannot remove all of the tick. The longer a tick stays attached, the greater the risk becomes that a disease will develop.
Seek treatment if flu-like symptoms or rashes develop after a tick bite. Rapid treatment greatly improves the chance of a full recovery.
A doctor should also assess any rash that develops at the site of the bite. Although a small bump may be normal, a larger rash, especially with a distinctive bull's-eye pattern, may be a sign of Lyme disease.
It is important to remove ticks from the skin as soon as possible. Use a fine-tipped tweezer.
Grasp the tick as close to the surface of the skin as possible. While applying even pressure, pull upward away from the skin. Avoid bending the tick.
After removing the tick, people should make sure they have successfully removed the mouthpart of the tick. If the mouthpart remains in the skin, take steps to remove it.
Wash the skin with soap and water after removal.
Ticks are common all over the U.S., which can make completely avoiding them difficult. Fortunately, preventing tick bites does not mean avoiding the outdoors.
The following measures can help reduce the chances of a tick bite:
- wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants and tucking them into socks when outdoors in wooded areas
- applying insect repellant containing 20 percent DEET to both skin and clothing
- wearing enclosed shoes when outdoors
- tying up long hair when in wooded or grassy areas
- checking for ticks after being outdoors
- showering as soon as possible after being outdoors in case a tick is attached to the skin
- considering wearing light-colored clothing when hiking or hunting, as these make it easier to spot a tick crawling on them
Click here for an excellent range of DEET products available for purchase online.
Ticks are parasites that are most common in Midwestern and coastal U.S. states.
Most tick bites are not harmful. However, some can cause a range of diseases, including Lyme disease, Colorado tick fever, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Some of these conditions might result in extreme complications.
Treatment for many of these infections involves antibiotic medication and OTC pain relief. Tick bites can be tricky to prevent, but insect repellent and clean clothing can help.