Ticks are small parasitic insects that commonly bite humans and animals to feed on their blood.
Some ticks may carry infectious diseases that they can spread when biting humans or animals.
If you get a tick bite, remove the tick and wash the area immediately to reduce your risk of disease.
Use insect repellent, avoid heavily wooded or grassy areas, and wear long sleeves and pants while hiking and camping to help prevent tick bites.
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During warmer times of the year, many people enjoy being outdoors. In some parts of the country, any outdoor activity, from walking the dog to hiking or camping, can put you at risk of a tick bite. We’ll discuss what ticks are, why they may be concerning, what you should do if you think you may have a tick bite, and steps you can take to prevent tick bites.
Ticks are small parasites that feed on blood from humans and animals. Since ticks feed on humans and animals, the human or animal they bite is called a host.
When ticks bite, they attach themselves to their host and can feed on their blood for hours or days. They are very small, and it is common not to feel them bite. Sometimes ticks can go unnoticed for days until they swell from feeding and become large enough to spot.
Different ticks live in different parts of the country. Not all areas of the U.S. have the same types of ticks, but ticks can be found in all states. The brown dog tick, which commonly bites dogs but can also bite humans, can be found everywhere in the U.S.
In general, tick bites seem to be most common in the Northeast and least common in the South Central U.S.
The main reason tick bites are concerning is that they can spread disease. Ticks can become infected with bacteria, viruses, and other smaller parasites and pass them from host to host as the tick feeds on the host’s blood. The diseases caused by these infected ticks are called tick-borne diseases.
There are many different tick-borne diseases. Some diseases are common in certain areas and rare or even unheard of in others. For example, in the U.S., Lyme disease is common in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and upper Midwest, but less common elsewhere.
Common tick-borne diseases include:
But before you panic, remember that not all ticks are infected with diseases. Getting a tick bite does not mean you will be infected with a tick-borne disease.
Whether or not a tick transmits a disease from one host to another depends on a few different factors: the type of tick, the geographic location, the percent of ticks in that location that carry diseases, and how long the tick stays attached to the host. Because of this, the actual risk of infection may be quite low, even in areas where a particular disease commonly occurs. For example, for Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne disease in the U.S., the risk of infection after a tick bite is about 2%.
The easiest way to tell if you have a tick bite is if you see the tick still attached. Ticks are small dark-brown bugs that can be hard to notice unless you know what to look for. After feeding, the tick may become up to two to three times larger and can be easier to spot.
Ticks usually fall off on their own after a couple of days, once they have fed. At this point, you may notice a firm, red, itchy bump at the site of the bite. This is not a sign of tick-borne disease, just your body’s reaction to the tick’s saliva.
The best thing to do if you find a tick attached to your body is to remove it. Do not wait for it to fall off. The faster you remove the tick, the lower your risk of developing a tick-borne disease. After removing the tick, wash the area carefully with soap and water.
To safely remove a tick, you can use small tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull back firmly, but do not yank or twist. Do not squeeze or crush the tick’s body, because that can spill the blood inside the tick and increase your risk of infection.
One you have removed the tick, you can get rid of it by putting it in alcohol, wrapping it in tape, placing it in a sealed container, or flushing it in the toilet. It may be a good idea to take a picture of the tick in case you seek medical care and need to describe what it looked like.
People can have many different symptoms after a tick bite, and they can appear anywhere in the body, not necessarily at the site of the bite. The symptoms are due to the spread of infection from the tick bite and may be different depending on the type of tick and the type of disease. They can range from mild to life-threatening, especially if the disease is not treated early. In some cases, symptoms are temporary, while others may cause long-term health problems.
Also worth knowing: Symptoms of tick-borne diseases don’t always appear immediately after a tick bite. They can come up anywhere from a few days to a few weeks later.
Many of the common symptoms of different tick-borne diseases are similar. Often, it may not be possible to tell these diseases apart based on symptoms alone. In some cases, it is possible to have more than one tick-borne disease at the same time.
Here are some typical symptoms of a few common tick-borne diseases — but this list is not exhaustive.
Symptoms may develop between 3 to 30 days after a tick bite.
A red oval or ring-shaped rash is very common but does not always happen.
Fever, headache, body ache, and joint pain are also common.
If untreated, other symptoms may develop later.
Symptoms may develop between 5 to 14 days after a tick bite.
Fever, headache, body aches, rash, and gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are most common.
Symptoms may develop between 1 to 9 weeks after a tick bite.
Fever, fatigue, headache, body aches, joint pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, and dark urine are some common symptoms.
Some people may also get an enlarged liver or spleen that may feel like a fullness in their upper abdomen.
Early symptoms may develop between 1 to 4 days after a tick bite.
Early symptoms include high fever, severe headache, body aches, swelling of the eyes and hands, and gastrointestinal symptoms.
Later symptoms occur after 5 days and may include confusion, coma, respiratory failure, tissue necrosis, organ failure.
Symptoms may develop between 5 and 14 days after a tick bite.
Symptoms include fever, headache, body aches, rash, gastrointestinal symptoms, and confusion.
Because different people may have different symptoms and symptoms alone may not be enough to diagnose a specific tick-borne disease, examination of the tick when possible and blood tests may be necessary. Some tick-borne diseases can have very serious health consequences, so it is important to seek medical care if you develop any symptoms at any point in time after a tick bite.
There are things you can do to care for a tick bite at home before seeking medical help.
After you have removed the tick, wash the area well with soap and water. Then, you can use ice or a cold pack to reduce redness and swelling. You can also use common home medications, like ibuprofen or Benadryl, to help with pain and itching. Local anesthetic skin sprays with benzocaine and creams like calamine lotion may also help to soothe symptoms.
Do not apply nail polish, lotion, petroleum jelly, or heat to the tick.
The risk of developing a tick-borne disease from a tick bite is very low if the tick has been attached for less than 36 hours. If you see a tick on you, remove it right away, take a picture of it in case you need to show your healthcare provider, and monitor for symptoms.
If you’ve had a tick attached for longer than 36 hours, or if you are not sure how long a tick has been attached or you develop symptoms, then it is a good idea to seek medical care.
Depending on your geographic location and the type of tick, some people may need antibiotics after a tick bite, even if they do not yet have symptoms of tick-borne disease. Seeing a picture of the tick can help your healthcare provider determine your risk of tick-borne disease and the best course of treatment for you.
If you develop serious symptoms, like chest pain, shortness of breath, or fainting, seek emergency care immediately. These may be signs of an allergic reaction. You should also seek care if you notice increased pain, swelling, or pus draining from the bite.
There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting a tick bite. Ticks can be found all year long, but bites tend to be more common in warmer months.
To prevent tick bites, avoid heavily wooded and brushy areas with lots of leaves and grass. If you go hiking or camping, wear light-colored long sleeves and pants, because that may make it easier to identify a tick on you. Tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your shoes to decrease the exposed skin that ticks can bite. Use insect repellent that contains DEET or permethrin on your clothes.
After being outdoors, check for ticks when showering. Remember to check kids and pets, too. Drying your clothes on high heat may help remove any ticks stuck on clothing.
And remember: You don’t have to be hiking or camping to come across ticks — they can be anywhere, even in your own backyard. The best way to protect yourself and your family from tick-borne disease is to know what to look for and to routinely check for ticks after spending time outdoors.
Tick bites can be common, especially if you spend a lot of time outdoors in wooded or grassy areas. Because ticks also bite animals, you may be exposed to a tick from your pets. Ticks can transmit diseases through their bites, but this is not always the case. Using insect repellent, checking for ticks after being outdoors, and removing a tick as soon as you find one are the best ways to protect yourself and your family from tick-borne diseases.
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