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Tick Bites

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Ticks might look like insects, but they’re not. They are part of the arachnid family, along with scorpions, mites, and spiders. When a tick bites, it attaches itself to the skin of an animal and sucks blood. There are hundreds of kinds of ticks but the two types most of us hear about are the deer tick and the dog tick.

Deer ticks are tiny, about the size as the head of a pin. They’re in many parts of the United States. Some deer ticks carry germs that can cause illnesses such as Lyme disease, especially in New England and parts of the Midwest.

Dog ticks are very common and can be up to ½ inch (10 mm.) long. If you have a dog, you've probably found a dog tick on its coat. Some dog ticks carry germs that can cause illnesses such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

What Are the Signs of Tick Bites?

When a tick bites, the person won’t feel it happen. There might be a little redness around the bite area because a tick’s saliva can be a little irritating to the skin.

Handling Tick Bites

Always check your kids (and yourself) for ticks after spending time in the woods. Check their skin and hair — on the scalp, behind the ears, around the neck, in the eyebrows and eyelashes. Check skin fold areas like the armpits, belly button, behind the knees, and groin area. Ticks removed within 36 hours are less likely to spread diseases. 

If you find a tick:

  • Call your doctor, who may want you to save the tick in a sealed container or zippered plastic bag so the type can be identified.
  • Use tweezers to grab the tick as close as possible to the skin. Then, pull it off in one steady motion. Do not twist or yank it.
  • Wash the bite area with soap and water or swab it with alcohol.

Other things to know:

  • Don’t cover the tick with petroleum jelly, fingernail polish, or anything else. These don’t help the tick come out and can even make it harder to remove. They also might make the tick burrow deeper and release more saliva, which can make it more likely to spread disease.
  • If part of the tick stays in the skin, don’t worry. It will come out eventually. Keep an eye on the bite area for any signs of irritation or infection (such as redness, swelling, pain, or pus).

Doctors don't need to treat most tick bites. Not all ticks carry germs. And not all infected ticks pass the germ to the person they bite. A tick needs to be attached for at least 36 hours to spread a germ. Sometimes, doctors might give one dose of antibiotics to prevent Lyme disease if the tick is likely to have been attached for more than 36 hours or the person lives in an area where Lyme disease is common.

Watch for symptoms of Lyme disease for 30 days after a tick bite. These include rash, fever, headache, tiredness, muscle pains, or a swollen painful joint. This can be treated and cured with a short course of antibiotics.

How Can We Prevent Tick Bites?

The best way to prevent tick bites is to avoid shaded, grassy, wooded areas that are likely to be tick-infested. If you do go into an area where ticks live:

  • Stay in the middle of the trail, instead of going through high grass or the woods.
  • Wear closed shoes or boots, long-sleeved shirts, and long pants. Tuck pant legs into shoes or boots to prevent ticks from crawling up legs.
  • Use an insect repellent with between 10% to 30% DEET in kids older than 2 years. Always follow the label directions for applying.
  • Consider treating clothing and gear with permethrin to repel ticks. When used properly, permethrin is safe for all ages. But don't use it on clothing or other material a child may suck on or chew.
  • Wear light-colored clothing to help see ticks more easily.
  • Have your family members shower and wash hair after being outside to remove ticks before they attach.
Date reviewed: July 2021