Understanding Tick Bites: A Guide to Early Detection And Effective Management


Tick warning sign

Finding a tick on your body can be distressing. However, tick bites are often harmless and don’t cause any symptoms.

If you successfully remove an embedded tick and don't experience any health issues, there's generally little cause for concern.

But if you experience symptoms after finding a tick on your skin, this could mean you’ve developed a tick-borne disease that requires medical attention.

In this article, we’ll explain what tick bites are, the common symptoms people experience, and when to seek medical attention.

What is a Tick?

Ticks are small parasites that feed off blood to survive and typically live in damp, wooded environments.

Some ticks are active throughout the year, while others are more prevalent during the warmer seasons.

If you’re going for walks or hikes in warmer and wooded areas this summer, be on the lookout for ticks.

Some ticks spread bacteria that can cause disease, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) and Lyme disease.

These are known as tick-borne diseases — which we will discuss later in this article.

What does a tick bite feel like?

Most tick bites aren’t painful. This makes it important to check yourself and your pets for ticks regularly, as they’re often not apparent due to their size and typically painless bites. What does a tick bite look like?

A tick bite usually appears as small bumps at the site of where the tick initially was.

However, depending on the type of tick, you may develop other signs and symptoms, like a rash near the location of the bite.

Ticks are commonly found behind the knees, between the fingers and toes, and in the armpits.

They are also sometimes found in the neck, hairline, on the top of the head, and behind the ears.

Although these are the most common places that ticks are found on the body, it’s important to check your entire body for ticks by running your fingers over your skin and through your hair.

Common Tick Bite Symptoms

Symptoms of tick-borne diseases start between three and thirty days after the tick bite. Most people typically experience flu-like symptoms, but others may also be present.

The symptoms you experience will depend largely on the type of tick you’ve been bitten by and how long the tick was embedded in your skin before it was removed.

The following symptoms may indicate a tick bite:

Pain, swelling, or itching at the bite site

The mouthparts that the tick inserts into the skin can cause irritation and injury, which could result in localized pain and swelling.

Additionally, an allergic reaction to the tick's saliva may occur, causing pain and redness at the bite site.

Lastly, the tick’s saliva can cause inflammation and swelling due to substances that trigger a bodily reaction.

A rash

Tick bites can cause a red rash at the bite site and on other parts of the body. This can potentially result from the body’s immune system to the tick’s saliva, which is a foreign substance that it attempts to combat.

A burning sensation

The substances found in the tick’s saliva can irritate the skin or stimulate the nerve endings, leading to itching or burning sensations, particularly at the bite site.

If the site becomes infected with bacteria, this can result in further skin irritation, inflammation, and a burning sensation.

Blisters

The tick’s saliva can irritate the tissues that lie beneath the skin, potentially causing fluid to accumulate beneath the skin’s surface. This can form one or more blisters.

An allergic reaction to a tick bite may also result in blisters on the skin.

Joint pain

Joint aches and pains are common symptoms of Lyme disease, which is caused by tick bites.

When the tick bites the body, the immune system responds by causing inflammation. This can lead to tissue damage and pain, including in the joints.

Shortness of breath

The main reason you may experience shortness of breath after a tick bite is as a result of an allergic reaction. An allergic reaction can range from mild to severe, potentially causing airway swelling and making breathing difficult.

Shortness of breath may be an indicator of anaphylaxis, and you should seek emergency medical attention if you develop this symptom.

Tick-Borne Diseases You Should Know About

Some types of ticks can cause the person who has been bitten to develop a disease. Some common tick-borne illnesses include:

  • Lyme disease: This illness is caused by a bite from a parasite called the blacklegged tick, sometimes referred to as the deer tick. Symptoms of Lyme disease can range from mild to severe, with antibiotics being the primary treatment method.

  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever: Usually transmitted by wood or dog ticks, this disease can be deadly if not treated early enough.

  • Tularemia: A disease that can infect both animals and humans. This illness is typically treated with antibiotics and becomes life-threatening if you don’t receive treatment early on.

  • Ehrlichiosis: This is spread by lone star ticks, found in the southeastern and south-central states, and primarily affects the body’s white blood cells.

  • Babesiosis: Caused by microscopic parasites that infect the red blood cells. This disease is usually transmitted by the blacklegged tick, which also transmits Lyme disease.

  • Alpha-gal syndrome (AGS): Also caused by lone star tick bites, alpha-gal is transferred into the human body, triggering the immune system to produce antibodies.

Steps to Follow for Tick Removal

  • Take a photograph: Before you remove the tick, take a photo of it. You can show your healthcare provider this image, which will help them identify the type of tick, if it has transmitted any diseases, and what the best course of treatment would be.

  • Protect your hands: Before you remove the tick, ensure that your hands won’t come into contact with it. You can do this by wearing gloves or using tissues.

  • Pull the tick out of the skin: Use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick at the skin’s surface. Gently pull the tick out of the skin without twisting or squeezing it.

  • Clean the site: Using rubbing alcohol, iodine scrub, or soap, clean the bite area thoroughly.

  • Wash your hands: Cleanse your hands using soap and water, even if you have protected them initially.

  • Dispose of the tick: The tick can be wrapped in tape and disposed of in the garbage or flushed down the toilet.

Key Point: Take Caution with Other Tick Removal Methods

Some common methods that people have used in the past to remove ticks from the body include using nail polish, petroleum jelly, or a hot match.

These methods pose a safety hazard and are not proven to help remove ticks. Instead, it may cause the head of a tick to remain embedded in the skin, making it more difficult to remove.

When to Seek Medical Attention for a Tick Bite

In many cases, removing the tick and cleaning the bite site is sufficient treatment. However, there are some instances where you should seek medical attention for a tick bite.

Below we’ve listed the reasons you may want to visit your doctor for tick bites:

You can’t fully remove the tick

If you’ve tried removing the tick and part of it has been left behind in the skin, you should see a doctor.

The longer the tick remains embedded in the skin, the higher your risk of disease transmission.

Your rash becomes larger

While it’s quite normal for a bump or small rash to form at the site of the bite, if it develops into a larger rash, it could mean you’ve developed Lyme disease.

This is especially true if the rash resembles a bull’s-eye.

Tick bite rashes can take up to 14 days to appear, so ensure you check your skin regularly if you’ve been bitten.

You develop symptoms

If you have a rash anywhere on your body and are experiencing the symptoms outlined above, consulting a medical professional is important, as this could mean you have a tick-borne disease that must be treated.

The site is infected

Signs of an infected bite site include:

  • Pain

  • Change in skin color

  • Oozing from the bite

If you develop an infection, you need to be treated by a healthcare provider.

Treatment for Tick Bites

The type of medical treatment you receive for a tick bite will depend on the species of tick that has bitten you and the type of tick-borne illness you have.

Most tick-borne diseases are treated with antibiotics. Common antibiotics for tick-borne illnesses include doxycycline, amoxicillin, or cefuroxime.

Home Remedies for Tick Bites

If you are only experiencing mild itching and redness, there are some steps you can take at home to relieve these minor symptoms:

  • Ice: Place an ice pack on the bite for 15 to 20 minutes every hour until the swelling and discomfort subsides.

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medication: You may want to take an OTC antihistamine if you have itching or swelling in the area of the bite. You can also take OTC pain relievers to ease discomfort.

  • Local anesthetic spray: These usually contain benzocaine, which can relieve pain at the bite site.

Where Can I Learn More About Tick Bites?

While LifeMD doesn’t provide medical care for tick bites, we can help you manage any unpleasant symptoms you may be experiencing.

A team of medical professionals can assist you with medications, prescriptions, and advice to cope with painful or uncomfortable symptoms caused by a tick bite.

You can consult with board-certified physicians and nurse practitioners online and skip the waiting room. Make your appointment today.

LifeMD makes it easy to stay on top of your health because talking to a doctor, filling your prescriptions, getting your labs done—and more—are all easy and cost-effective. Come discover a healthcare solution built around you and your life.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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