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How long does a tick have to be attached to get sick?

Quick Summary

Ticks can transmit diseases like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, babesiosis, and ehrlichiosis. For transmission of these diseases to occur, the tick generally needs to be attached for 24-48 hours. Quick removal of ticks can often prevent disease transmission. Ticks as small as poppy seeds can transmit disease, so thoroughly checking skin and clothing after being outdoors is important. If any tick remains attached for over 24 hours or you develop any symptoms like rash, fever or chills after a tick bite, see a doctor for antibiotics.

How Long Does a Tick Need to Be Attached to Transmit Disease?

For a tick to transmit disease, it generally needs to be attached and feeding for at least 24-48 hours. This allows time for pathogens like bacteria and parasites to pass from the tick’s body into the bloodstream of the host. Here is an overview of transmission times for common tick-borne diseases:

Lyme Disease

– Caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria

– Transmission possible after 36-48 hours of attachment

– Risk remains if tick is not properly removed

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

– Caused by Rickettsia rickettsii bacteria

– Transmission possible after 4-6 hours of attachment

– Severe disease risk if tick remains over 24 hours


– Caused by Francisella tularensis bacteria

– Transmission possible after 24-36 hours of attachment


– Caused by Babesia parasites

– Transmission after 24-48 hours of attachment


– Caused by Ehrlichia bacteria

– Transmission possible after 24 hours of attachment

So in general, the longer a tick remains attached, the greater the risk of disease transmission. Even ticks that have fed for less than 24 hours can sometimes transmit disease. It is important to remove ticks as quickly as possible.

Can Poppy Seed Sized Ticks Transmit Disease?

Yes, even tiny poppy seed sized ticks can transmit disease. Young deer ticks which are roughly the size of a poppy seed are able to spread infections like Lyme disease.

The deer tick or blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) goes through three life stages:


– About the size of a poppy seed (1mm)

– Hatch from eggs in the summer

– Can become infected with disease-causing pathogens at this first stage


– About the size of a pinhead (2mm)

– Emerge in spring and early summer

– Most likely to transmit Lyme disease due to small size and peak feeding time


– About the size of a sesame seed (3-5mm)

– Emerge in fall and winter

– Female adult ticks feed and lay eggs

So while the poppy seed sized larvae and pinhead sized nymphs are small, they can still spread disease when they attach for feeding. Thorough tick checks and prompt removal are important to prevent transmission of disease from ticks at any stage.

What Are the First Symptoms of a Tick-Borne Illness?

If a tick transmitted any disease during its attachment, symptoms generally will begin within a few days to a few weeks after the bite occurred. Here are some of the most common first symptoms of tick-borne diseases:

Erythema migrans rash

– Red ring-like rash expanding from the bite site

– First symptom in 70-80% of Lyme disease cases

– Starts 3-30 days after bite

Fever and chills

– Sudden onset fever, often with shaking chills

– Can be first sign of Lyme, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis

– Usually appears within 1-2 weeks after bite

Flu-like symptoms

– Fatigue, headache, muscle aches, joint pain

– Can begin within days of tick bite

– Common early symptom of many tick-borne diseases


– Small red spots or large purplish rash

– Early indicator of Rocky Mountain spotted fever

– Starts 2-4 days after bite

If any rash, spots or fever develop after a tick bite, see a doctor right away as antibiotics are needed rapidly in the early stage of many tick-borne illnesses. Tick-borne diseases can be serious if not treated promptly.

How to Properly Remove an Attached Tick

To safely detach a tick that has started feeding, follow these steps:

Step 1) Use Fine-Tipped Tweezers

– Grasp the tick close to the skin using fine-tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool. Avoid squeezing the tick’s body.

Step 2) Pull Up Slowly and Steadily

– Pull straight up away from the skin slowly and steadily without twisting or jerking. Do not try to detach in a rushing manner.

Step 3) Disinfect the Bite Area

– Use soap and water or an antiseptic on the bite area after removal.

Step 4) Dispose of the Tick

– Submerge the tick in alcohol to kill it or flush it down the toilet. Do not crush with fingers.

Proper tweezer technique allows safe tick removal without leaving mouthparts embedded in the skin that could increase infection risk. Take a photo of the tick after removal in case identification is needed later. Contact a doctor if any symptoms develop after the bite.

Diseases Ticks Can Transmit in the United States

There are over 20 tick-borne diseases in the U.S. Here are details on some of the most common and emerging ones:

Disease Pathogen Main Tick Vector Symptoms Cases per Year
Lyme Disease Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria Blacklegged tick Rash, fever, fatigue 476,000
Anaplasmosis Anaplasma phagocytophilum bacteria Blacklegged tick Fever, chills, headache 8,000
Ehrlichiosis Ehrlichia bacteria Lone star tick Fever, headache, nausea 2,500
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever Rickettsia rickettsii bacteria American dog tick Fever, rash, headache 4,000
Babesiosis Babesia parasites Blacklegged tick Fever, fatigue, chills 2,100
Tularemia Francisella tularensis bacteria Lone star tick, dog tick Fever, ulcers, swelling 230

This table highlights common tick-borne diseases in the U.S., the type of pathogen, the main tick that spreads it, common symptoms, and estimated cases per year based on CDC data. Lyme disease accounts for the large majority of cases, though other tick-borne infections are increasing.

Preventing Tick Bites and Tick-Borne Diseases

You can take these key steps to avoid tick bites and lower disease risk:

Avoid Tick Habitats

– Stay in the center of trails when hiking. Avoid high grass and brush.

Use Repellent

– Apply EPA approved repellents like DEET or picaridin on skin and clothing.

Wear Light Clothing

– Wear long sleeves, pants tucked into socks, and light colors to spot ticks easily.

Perform Tick Checks

– Conduct full body checks after being outdoors. Shower soon after coming inside.

Talk to Your Vet

– Ask your veterinarian about tick prevention products approved for dogs.

Control Ticks in Yard

– Remove brush and leaves where ticks live. Apply pesticides or natural deterrents.

Following prevention guidelines and doing daily tick checks after time outdoors can help you avoid tick bites and lower your chances of contracting a tick-borne disease this season.


For transmission of tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease to typically occur, the tick needs to be feeding for 24-48 hours. Even tiny poppy seed sized ticks can spread infections when they remain attached. If you find a tick attached, use fine-tipped tweezers to detach it promptly by the head. Monitor for any signs of illness like rash or fever after the bite, and contact your doctor for possible antibiotics if they arise. Following tick bite prevention and prompt tick removal are the best defenses against developing a dangerous tick-borne disease.