Tick bites are common this time of year. Some tick bites can be harmless, but some can infect you with serious, potentially deadly, diseases. As the climate is getting warmer, the “tick season” is becoming more year-round across the United States. Let’s talk about what you need to know about ticks and their bites.
Just what is a tick?
Ticks are parasites that feed on warm-blooded hosts by biting them. They are in the arthropod family, along with mites and spiders. There are many kinds of ticks around the world, especially in warm, humid climates. There are over 90 species of ticks found throughout the U.S., which can vary significantly in size and color. The most common ticks in the U.S. include:
- Blacklegged tick (also called a deer tick)
- Lone star tick
- Dog ticks (American dog tick and brown dog tick)
How common are tick bites?
Tick bites are very common. Most tick bites are not reported or treated by a medical provider, so we don’t really know how many tick bites occur every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported over 50,000 cases of diseases caused by tick bites in the U.S. in 2019.
What do you need to know about tick bites?
Ticks are often small and difficult to see until they have been attached for some time. Most tick bites do not cause pain or itching, although some do. A tick bite may not cause any symptoms initially. You may not realize that you have a tick bite until the tick has been feeding on your blood long enough to become larger and easier to see.
A tick will detach itself once it has had a complete blood meal, so a person can sometimes have a significant tick bite without even realizing it. Some people develop a tick-borne infection without any recollection of a tick bite.
Ticks are more likely to spread disease the longer they are attached. It is unusual to get a disease from a tick that was attached for less than 24 hours.
For these reasons, it is very important to check for ticks after you have been in any area where you might find ticks and remove them as quickly as possible.
What parts of the body are more likely to have a tick bite?
Ticks can bite anywhere on the body, but they usually move to their preferred places. This is usually a place with soft skin and plenty of blood. For people, this includes:
- The scalp and neck
- Between the legs
- On the legs, particularly behind the knees
- In the belly button
- In or around the ears
- The arm pit or underside of the upper arms
- Around the waist
What should you do if you have a tick bite?
If you find a tick attached to your skin, take the following steps:
- Tug gently but firmly with blunt tweezers near the head of the tick at the level of your skin until it releases its hold on your skin.
- Do not squeeze the tick’s body with your fingers or tweezers.
- Do not use kerosene, hot cigarette butts, hot match heads, or Vaseline to remove the tick. These methods can cause the tick to release more infectious organisms while it is attached, increasing your chance of getting a tick-borne infection.
- After removal, avoid crushing the tick’s body or handling the tick with bare fingers.
- Wash the bite area and your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
- Save the tick in a zip top baggie or take good pictures of the tick for identification purposes.
When should you see your doctor for a tick bite?
- If you think the tick has been attached to you for more than a few hours.
- If you see a rash developing at the site of the tick bite or on other areas of your body.
- If you develop any flu-like symptoms after a tick bite, even a week or two later.
- If you have blistering or significant pain.
We will talk more about how to prevent tick bites as well as some of the diseases ticks can carry over the next couple of weeks.
us your question. We are here to help.Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor