Ticks are small bugs that can carry a variety of bacteria or viruses, including Lyme disease. Though there are many types of ticks, two carry Lyme disease and are identifiable by their color and markings.

Ticks are members of the spider family and are arachnids, not insects. They are crawling bugs that begin life as very small eggs, and they then grow into larvae, nymphs, and adults.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ticks at the nymph stage are usually the size of a poppy seed. Adult ticks can be about the size of a sesame seed.

When they feed, their body swells with the blood, altering their appearance. Their body becomes larger and takes on a brown or grey hue.

This article will explain how to identify ticks that transmit Lyme disease, how to know if a tick bite will turn into Lyme disease, what to do if a tick is found on the body, and when to contact a doctor.

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Which ticks transmit Lyme disease?

There are hundreds of species of ticks worldwide, but only a few bite humans and transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

According to the CDC the two ticks that can cause Lyme disease include the blacklegged tick and the western blacklegged tick.

The blacklegged tick, also called the deer tick, lives in the northeastern, central, eastern, and southern United States. This tick stays active as long as temperatures are above freezing.

The western blacklegged tick lives along the Pacific coast of the United States and in bordering states. Most often found along deer trails and in fallen leaves, needles, or branches, it has also been found on wooden park benches and tables.

During the nymph and larval stages, this tick is likely to feed on small mammals like lizards or birds. As an adult, it feeds on larger mammals like deer, dogs, bears, and humans.

Blacklegged tick

The CDC states that at the nymph stage, these ticks are the size of a poppy seed and adults are the size of a sesame seed.

Typically, female blacklegged ticks measure less than one-eighth of an inch, with males being slightly smaller. But they can grow to over a quarter inch after feeding.

Their bodies are dark brown in color and have an oval shape. Females have brown-to-reddish bodies and a black shield, called a scutum, on their back, behind their heads. Males are dark brown in color with no red color on the body. 

Western blacklegged tick

The western blacklegged tick bears a similar appearance to the blacklegged tick, but the body is more elongated.

This tick in the nymph stage is about the size of a poppy seed and can be difficult to see and identify. They have brown legs with a brownish-colored body.

Females are about one-eighth of an inch in length, with a dark reddish body and black shield behind the head. When females have fed, they can grow to over three-eighths of an inch in size.

Male western blacklegged ticks are brownish-black and a little smaller than females. They do not grow when they feed.

How to know if a tick bite will turn into Lyme disease

It may not be possible to know if a tick bite will develop into Lyme disease.

However, the CDC states that in 70–80% of people who contract the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, a rash will appear within 3–30 days following the tick bite. This rash is called erythema migrans (EM).

The appearance of an EM rash can vary widely, but it generally presents as a circle surrounding the bite.

The rash expands over several days, as it clears, often reaching a diameter of 12 inches or more. It may take on the appearance of a target or bulls-eye.

Next steps if a person finds a tick on their body

Removing a tick must be a careful and slow procedure to ensure the head comes out along with the body.

To remove a tick, a person should use clean, fine-tipped tweezers and grip the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.

They should then pull upward, steadily and with even pressure.

If possible, they should avoid twisting or jerking the tick as they pull. This is because it can leave the mouth parts in the skin.

If the mouth parts break off and remain in the skin, a person can try to gently remove them with tweezers. If it is not possible to remove the mouth parts, they should leave the wound alone and let it heal.

After removing the tick, they should dispose of it in one of the following ways:

  • Place it in alcohol.
  • Place it in a sealed bag or container.
  • Wrap it in tape.
  • Flush it down the toilet.

The last step involves thoroughly cleaning the bite wound with soap and water, or alcohol.

Some states have a tick submission program that allows for the surveillance of tick species and the diseases that they carry. People may wish to submit the tick to their states’ tick program.

When to contact a doctor for a tick bite

A person should contact a doctor after a tick bite if they develop symptoms of Lyme disease, such as the rash.

If a rash, fever, or flu-like symptoms develops within a few weeks after removing the tick, see a doctor and let them know about the tick bite.

Swollen lymph nodes may develop if the rash does not.

Summary

Ticks are tiny bugs in the spider family that live in wooded areas, lawns, and shrubs. There are many species of tick, but two contract and carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

The blacklegged tick lives in the northeastern, eastern, central, and southern U.S., while the western blacklegged tick lives along the Pacific coast and neighboring states. These ticks contract Lyme disease from small or large mammals when they feed, then transmit it to humans when they bite.

Due to their size, it can be challenging to identify a tick. All ticks have eight legs and typically have dark bodies. Females are typically larger than males.

The most common indication of Lyme disease is a rash that forms into a circle around the tick bite, presenting as a target or bullseye. A doctor should examine a person if they develop any rash, fever, or flu-like symptoms following removal of a tick.