Deer ticks, or blacklegged ticks, are very small, blood sucking insects. They prefer to feed on larger animals, such as deer, but they will also bite humans.
Deer ticks can spread the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, though they may also carry other bacteria. They are small and can be difficult to spot, as they tend to favor hidden areas of the body, such as the armpit or groin.
To prevent serious complications from the bite of a deer tick, it is essential to identify and remove the insect as soon as possible.
In this article, learn more about how to identify and remove deer ticks.
Deer ticks, scientifically known as Ixodes scapularis, exist primarily in the eastern and north-central parts of the United States.
A similar species called the western blacklegged tick, or Ixodes pacificus, exists mainly in the western parts of the U.S.
Blacklegged ticks are only about the size of a sesame seed. Immature ticks, or nymphs, can also bite. These are only about the size of a poppy seed.
Both adults and nymphs have eight long, black legs that extend from a round, bulb shaped abdomen.
Males are darker and generally have a uniform brown color, with a whitish strip around the outside of the abdomen. Females have a two-tone, lighter brown torso. A female’s torso may also become more rust colored after ingesting blood.
Although the body of a blacklegged tick tends to be flat, after eating, it fills up and expands.
Deer ticks will partially burrow into the skin and latch onto their host to feed. The body of a feeding tick will stick out of the skin. Afterward, there may be some irritation around the site of the bite.
Deer ticks excrete a form of anesthetic onto their host through their saliva. This allows them to attach to the host and feed without the host feeling pain from the bite. That said, some people may experience irritation at the site of the bite.
Since ticks attach to the host, they may remain on the site of a bite for some time. Regularly checking the body for ticks is the easiest way to identify a tick bite.
Ticks prefer to feed from places where the host will not notice their presence. For example, they may opt to feed in hidden areas near the groin, underarms, or other skin folds.
The bite itself may appear red on light skin or purple or brown on dark skin. If the tick is carrying Lyme disease, the site of the bite may also have a distinctive bull’s-eye appearance.
Depending on the bacteria they harbor in their bodies when they latch onto a new host, deer ticks can spread multiple diseases.
The sections below will discuss these diseases in more detail.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the U.S.”
The disease spreads predominantly through deer tick bites. Infected deer ticks can pass on the bacteria that cause it, such as Borrelia burgdorferi and Borrelia mayonii.
The rash is circular, expanding at the site of the bite around 3–30 days afterward. The rash may have a bull’s-eye or target-like appearance — that is, it may have a red, brown, or purple center with a ring around it.
Most cases of Lyme disease are treatable with a few weeks of antibiotics. Without treatment, the disease may spread to the person’s joints, heart, and nervous system.
Other infectious germs
Deer ticks may also spread other harmful germs, including:
Deer ticks are more active in the warmer months, from April to September. However, a person can sustain a bite at any time.
If possible, avoid areas in which deer ticks live, including:
- forest regions
- thick, tall grasses
- areas known to have mammal wildlife
- brush and overgrown areas with high humidity and moisture
When walking on trails in these regions, try to walk in the center of the trail and avoid brushing against foliage. Deer ticks will often wait on the tips of these plants to attach themselves to an animal or person walking by.
For personal protection, it is important to wear clothing that provides full coverage — such as long socks, long-sleeved shirts, and pants — while hiking, camping, or traveling in an area known to have deer ticks.
Treating all clothing with a spray or soak product containing 0.5% permethrin might help repel ticks and other pests. These products can treat clothing, boots, and camping gear, though it is important to apply the treatment in a well-ventilated area and allow it to dry completely before use.
Some insect repellents may also help repel ticks, including:
- oil of lemon eucalyptus
Even after a trip, it is important to take precautions to avoid ticks. Ticks can attach themselves to camping gear, pets, and clothing and may not bite a person until later on. Check all gear, clothing, and pets regularly.
Taking a shower within 2 hours of being in a tick-infested area may help wash off unattached ticks and provides a good opportunity for a person to do a tick check of their body.
Using a mirror to inspect hard-to-reach areas, look over the entire body to check for ticks, paying special attention to the following areas:
- under the arms
- inside the belly button
- behind the knees
- between the legs
- around the groin
- around the waist
- on the scalp or near the hairline
- around the ears
Many people interact with ticks in their yard or neighborhood. Anyone who lives in regions where deer ticks are common should try to make their property less friendly to deer ticks.
Some prevention tips include:
- cutting grasses and keeping lawns low
- removing weeds and overgrown brush
- removing leaf litter
- keeping garbage cans tightly shut to discourage mammals that may carry ticks, such as raccoons and mice
- removing bird feeders, as the seeds may attract mice
Anyone who notices a tick bite should take immediate measures to remove it.
To remove a tick, use fine-tipped tweezers. Placing the tweezers as close to the skin as possible, grip the tick without squishing it. Pull up steadily, applying even pressure, until the tick is out.
If the person pulls up too fast, the head or feeding tube may remain in the skin. If this occurs, use clean tweezers to remove the parts of the tick that are still in the skin.
People should ignore any remaining parts that they cannot remove without causing further damage to the skin.
Clean the skin thoroughly with rubbing alcohol or soap and warm water. Dispose of the tick by placing it in a sealed bag, wrapping it tightly in tape, or drowning it in alcohol. Do not crush the tick with the fingers, as this may release blood and bacteria onto the person’s skin.
Anyone who develops a rash or fever in the weeks following a tick bite should contact their doctor.
It can help to make notes about the bite, such as when it occurred and any symptoms that appeared after the bite. Taking pictures of the bite or the tick itself may also assist a doctor with diagnosis.
Deer tick bites may spread the bacteria that cause Lyme disease and other infectious diseases.
Taking preventive measures may help prevent bites. For example, after being in areas known to have ticks, performing regular body checks may help a person identify and remove any ticks before they attach to the skin.
Anyone experiencing symptoms of Lyme disease or other infections after a tick bite should contact their doctor.