How to Protect Yourself from Ticks and What to Do If You Get Bitten
Dr. Angel Rivera
Ticks are small, parasitic insects that live on the blood of animals and humans.
They can be found in woods or grassy areas, but they sometimes end up on lawns and gardens as well.
Ticks like to stay close to their food sources, like your dog, cat, or you, so once one tick lands on you it is likely more will follow.
If a tick bites you it can cause itching and other problems such as tick paralysis, which is paralysis caused by a tick bite.
Here we discuss everything about ticks: what they are, where they live, how people get them, treatments for tick bites, and prevention methods.
Ticks are small, parasitic, eight-legged arachnids that live in the environment and are related to mites and spiders.
They feed on blood, and most tick species have a 2 to 3-year life cycle. When they bite people, ticks inject saliva into the skin to prevent them from feeling pain when they suck blood.
Feeding ticks will stay attached to their human hosts for a period of up to 7 to 10 days. When feeding they can expand to several times their original size and fully engorged ticks will just fall off once they are done feeding.
The tick's saliva contains several types of nasty substances which can make you ill if you are bitten, some tick bites cause mild symptoms while others may lead to serious problems such as Lyme Disease or tick paralysis.
There are several different species of ticks including the American dog tick, which is also called the wood tick, and the deer tick. Ticks have the appearance of a small spider with a flat body and in some tick species, the male tick is much smaller than the female tick.
They have four stages in their lifecycle, egg, larva, nymph, and adult.
Their size is variable and tick larvae are microscopic, tick nymphs can be as small as a pinhead while adult ticks may have bodies that measure up to two to five millimeters.
Ticks can be found anywhere outdoors where there is vegetation, including parks, grassy fields, woodlands, and forests.
They can be found in grassy and wooded areas, tick species that bite people prefer to live close to their food source.
Ticks usually feed on wildlife such as deer but when they cannot find a host animal nearby they will attach themselves to humans, dogs, cats, or any mammal if available.
Ticks live in different places all around the world, but they like to be where there are lots of small mammals such as mice or larger animals such as cattle which will provide a regular source of food for them.
Ticks can't fly; instead, they climb up grasses and plants until they find an animal or person to attach themselves to.
They also crawl across the ground, which is why they are often found in low-lying vegetation or on pathways where people walk.
If there is a tick population in your area, it's likely that you will see them around houses or on lawns where someone has left the grass long and not mowed regularly although they also appear on mowed grass too.
Ticks are most likely to bite people at any stage of their lifecycle as they need blood to feed in all stages.
The tick will crawl up the stem of grasses and plants until it finds a suitable place on your body, for example behind or around your ear or hairline.
Your blood pressure makes you feel warm so often ticks attach themselves near heat-producing areas such as your head, neck, and groin.
They also may attach themselves to your feet or legs if you are wearing long pants, socks or shoes because these tick species cannot bite through the fabric so they try not to waste their time biting parts of the body that are covered by clothing.
Tick bites can happen anywhere on the body but the most common places are:
- legs or feet if barefoot and not wearing pants
It should be noted that most tick bites are never felt by people, produce no symptoms, and are usually harmless.
That being said, symptoms can develop depending on what type of tick has bitten you and how long it was attached to your skin before you discovered and removed it.
Most tick bites that have symptoms cause an area around the site where the tick was attached to become red and swollen within a day or two.
This is often accompanied by some itching, although not all tick bites lead to itchiness.
Some tick species inject irritating substances into the skin during feeding which causes discomfort around their site of attachment for days after they have bitten you so even if your tick bite does not cause any other symptoms, you may still notice that the tick site itches.
The most common symptoms of tick bites include:
- pain and swelling where you were bitten
- rash or redness
- a small bump or red spot at the site of the bite
Ticks can bite anywhere on your body but they often attach to areas of thinner skin like around your hairline or in warm, moist places where clothing fits more tightly such as under your armpits and groin.
If a tick is attached near an area with lots of hair, it can be difficult to see tick bite symptoms because the tick is buried in your hair.
Tick bites can also carry tick-borne pathogens too. These diseases may also cause a range of symptoms including:
- body aches
- joint pain
- shortness of breath
- neck stiffness
- swollen lymph nodes
As noted above, being bitten by a tick that carries an infectious disease can cause different symptoms.
A tick-borne disease may also be called a vector-borne disease as it is caused by a blood feeding parasite.
If you think you may have one of these illnesses it is recommended that you see your doctor or health care provider.
The different diseases that are known to be carried by ticks include:
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness in North America.
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria that are carried by certain species of ticks, usually deer ticks but also some other types of ticks too. If you have been bitten by a tick and develop flu-like symptoms with pain at the site where the tick was attached to your skin, see your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.
Lyme disease will often result in a rash appearing around the site anywhere from a few days to a month after the bite.
The popular diagnosis people hear about when it comes to Lyme disease is that the rash will develop into a bulls-eye.
Although this does happen, in reality, less than half of people develop a rash that looks like a bulls-eye, and some only after many days.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever
Rocky Mountain spotted fever or RMSF, is the second most common tick-borne illness in North America.
RMSF can be passed from one tick to another, and eventually to humans. Rocky Mountain spotted fever starts like Lyme disease with flu-like symptoms including aches and pains, headache, and fever.
RMSF also sometimes causes a rash that can be confused with Lyme disease or chickenpox but usually starts on your palms, soles of the feet, or head before spreading to other parts of your body.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is very dangerous because it can progress quickly as tick bites themselves are rarely fatal but untreated RMSF can be fatal.
Ehrlichiosis, another tick-borne illness sometimes simply called "Ehrlichia", starts like Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever with flu-like symptoms including aches and pains, headache, fever.
Ehrlichiosis can also cause a rash but it is usually very faint and only on the tick bite site.
Symptoms of ehrlichiosis are not felt by most people but some do feel sicker than they would with Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, feeling tired, sore muscles/joints, confusion, nausea.
Tick paralysis or tick-borne encephalitis (TBE)
Like tick-borne illnesses, tick paralysis or tick-borne encephalitis is more common in other parts of the world than in North America.
Ticks carry these diseases but most cases are due to tick bites. Symptoms usually start with pain and redness at the site where you were bitten by a tick, followed by tick paralysis.
You may experience headaches, fever, vomiting, and slurred speech. Paralysis starts in your legs then spreads to other parts of your body until you are completely paralyzed.
Tularemia, or rabbit fever, is a tick-borne disease caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis.
Symptoms may include mild flu-like symptoms at first, followed by swollen lymph nodes and/or pneumonia as well as skin ulcers that appear after several days to weeks. In rare cases, you can get tularemia from tick bites.
Tick-borne relapsing fever (TBRF)
Tick-borne relapsing fever, or TBRF for short, is a tick-borne disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia hermsii and symptoms include chills, nausea/vomiting, severe headache, and muscle aches.
TBRF can cause more serious problems such as seizures, confusion, or meningitis.
Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI)
Another tick-borne illness similar to Lyme disease, southern tick-associated rash illness or STARI, is caused by a bacterium called Borellia lonestari.
Symptoms include fever, headaches as well as a bullseye, or target-shaped skin rashes that can appear around tick bites within days of being bitten.
Colorado tick fever
Colorado tick fever is very rare and, as its name suggests, is found in the western United States and in western Canada.
Symptoms are flu-like including aches and pains as well as a fever that can last for one to three weeks or months although symptoms usually go away after 10 days.
This disease is also known as mountain tick fever or mountain fever and should not be confused with Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
How do I know if it is a tick bite?
Aside from actually seeing or feeling the tick, you may notice some of the symptoms described above.
If you have found a tick on your body and you are not sure if it has come into contact with your skin, you can put on some gloves and use tweezers to grab the tick by its head or mouth.
Once removed, place it in a jar of alcohol so that you can identify what type of tick it is and also kill it.
If left untreated tick bites can cause tick-borne illness so it is very important to remove the tick as quickly as possible.
To do this, you should use tweezers and grasp the tick at the head as close to your skin as possible.
Pull the tick away from your body until the tick is unattached from your skin.
Check the bite area to make sure there are no other parts of the tick left there, if there are some pieces of the mouth left remove those as well.
You should then clean your hands and the site of the tick bite with soap and water or alcohol wipes.
If you are not sure what type of tick bit you, save it in a jar filled with rubbing alcohol for identification purposes and to kill it.
The easiest way to prevent tick bites is to not go into their habitat and avoid grassy and wooded areas so as not to come into contact with ticks.
Since ticks are most active when the weather is warm in spring, summer and fall it's important to take precautions during tick season.
When you go outside, use insect repellent with 20-30% DEET and wear long pants and closed-toe shoes when possible.
You can also check yourself for ticks after spending time in any wooded area or areas where there are tall grasses.
Also, make sure to shower soon after you leave their habitat as soap and water can sometimes remove them.
You can also put permethrin on any gear or clothes that may be exposed to ticks as it acts as a chemical repellent for ticks.
Ticks are small, eight-legged, parasitic arachnids that feast on the blood of mammals. They live in grassy or wooded areas outside and are most common in the spring, summer, and fall months.
They typically will hitch a ride on a passing person and the most common bite areas are your groin, armpits, and in your hair, although they can bite anywhere on your skin.
Tick bites usually have no symptoms and go unnoticed although sometimes symptoms do occur. The most common symptoms are pain and swelling where bitten or a rash and redness around the bite area.
Tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever can occur and also have their own symptoms like fever, chills, aches, and tiredness.
To treat a tick bite when the tick is still on you, use tweezers to grab the head of the tick as close to your skin as possible and pull it out.
Clean any other parts of the tick left in the bite area and then wash the area with soap and water or rubbing alcohol and preserve the tick in rubbing alcohol to kill it and show your doctor should you develop any symptoms.
To prevent ticks, you can avoid exposure to ticks by avoiding their habitat. If that isn't possible, remember to wear pants and closed-toe shoes, and shower after being in their habitat among other things.
We hope to have provided you with an extensive guide to tick bites, should you have any further questions or believe you may have a tick-borne illness please see your doctor or pharmacist.
References, Studies and Sources:
- Counterattacking the tick bite: towards a rational design of anti-tick vaccines targeting pathogen transmission - Parasites & Vectors