A tick is a small eight-legged bug that is in the same family of creatures as spiders. Ticks suck blood to complete their lifecycle.
Ticks can bite anywhere on the body. They are often attracted to moist areas of the body, such as the groin or underarms.
Ticks are common in many parts of the world, including the United States. Ticks may bite animals and humans. Although most tick bites are harmless, ticks can also transmit certain diseases when they bite.
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Signs and symptoms of a tick bite
Ticks can be red, brown, or black and are common around the world.
Ticks may be small or large and can be red, brown, or black.
Small ticks may be about 1-2 millimeters, which is about the size of a pinhead. Larger ticks tend to be about 3-5 millimeters. As they feed off of blood, ticks become larger and may grow to about the size of a marble.
A tick bite does not always cause symptoms. When a bite does, the following may develop:
- Raised bump at the bite site
- A burning sensation in the area of the bite
The main way to tell the difference between a tick bite and other bug bites is that when a tick bites a human, it often stays attached to the skin for several days.
Most people know they have been bitten by a tick because they find the tick still attached.
Risk factors for tick bites
Various types of ticks are found throughout the world. In the U.S., ticks tend to be more common in the Midwest, East, and West Coast.
Ticks may live in trees, grass, and shrubs. Ticks are more active in the warmer months, such as April through September. Anyone who spends time outdoors, especially in wooded or grassy areas, is at risk for a tick bite.
A person's risk for developing a tick-borne illness depends on what area of the country they live. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 96 percent of Lyme disease cases were reported from 14 states. Most were in the East or Upper Midwest.
A fully fed tick will stay attached to its host.
It's important to understand that not all tick bites cause illness. Some types of ticks can transmit certain diseases, however.
Lyme disease can occur when a tick bite transmits a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. As well as commonly occurring in the U.S, Lyme disease occurs in over 60 countries.
In the U.S., Lyme disease is most often transmitted by the black-legged tick. Black-legged ticks, which are also called deer ticks, are mainly found in the Northeastern and Upper Midwestern part of the U.S.
Usually, the tick must be attached to the skin for 36 to 48 hours for the disease to be transmitted. Symptoms may appear about 3 to 7 days from the time of infection.
Additional signs of Lyme disease can occur if the infection is not treated in its early stage. Late-term symptoms can develop weeks or months after the infection. These can include arthritis, nerve pain, and short-term memory problems.
Antibiotics are usually given to treat Lyme disease.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever
Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be transmitted by the American dog tick. This tick is found east of the Rocky Mountains and on the Pacific Coast. Symptoms include a high fever, rash, vomiting, and muscle pain.
The condition can be fatal if not treated quickly. It can lead to blood vessel and organ damage. Treatment involves a course of antibiotics.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people treated within five days of symptoms have fewer complications than those who get treated later.
Colorado tick fever
This disease is caused by the Rocky Mountain wood tick. This tick is found in the western states at elevations of 4,000 to 10,500 feet. It is especially common in Colorado.
Symptoms may include a fever which comes and goes, body aches, and tiredness. Some people also develop vomiting, stomach pain, and a skin rash.
Symptoms usually develop a few days after being bitten by the tick.
There is no specific treatment for Colorado tick fever. Fever and muscle aches can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers. Most people only develop a mild illness and recover in 1 to 2 weeks.
Tularemia is a rare disease caused by a bacterium called Francisella tularensis. It can be transmitted by the lone star tick, wood tick, and dog tick. Cases of tularemia have been reported 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.
When to see a doctor
Tweezers are recommended to remove all of the tick.
A tick bite may be harmless, but it's essential to know when to see a doctor. Any time a tick cannot be entirely removed, it's best to seek medical assistance. The longer a tick is attached, the greater the chance of developing a tick-borne disease.
After getting bit by a tick, it's also important to see a doctor if flu-like symptoms develop. These include fever, tiredness, and muscle aches. They could be signs of a tick-borne illness. The sooner treatment starts, the better the outcome may be.
If a rash develops at the site of the bite, it should also be seen by a doctor. Although a small bump may be normal, a larger rash, especially with a bull's-eye pattern, may be a sign of Lyme disease.
If a tick is spotted on the skin, it's important to remove it as soon as possible. A tick can be removed using a fine-tipped tweezer.
The tick should be grasped 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 the mouth part of the tick is not left attached to the skin. If it is, they should also be sure to remove it. The skin should be washed with soap and water after.
Preventing tick bites
Ticks are found in many parts of the U.S., which can make it difficult to avoid them completely. Fortunately, preventing tick bites does not mean avoiding the outdoors.
To reduce the chances of a tick bite, it is helpful to consider doing the following:
- Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants and tucking them into socks when outdoors in wooded areas
- Using insect repellant containing 20 percent DEET and applying it 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