Being bitten by a tick is an experience that many people will have at some point in their lives. Ticks are small arachnids that feed on the blood of humans and animals. They are found throughout the world, especially in wooded, brushy, and grassy areas. When a tick bites you, it can transmit dangerous diseases, so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of a tick bite.
What does a tick bite feel like at first?
Often, people don’t even notice when a tick first bites them. A tick seeks out warm places on the body, like the groin, armpits, and scalp. They like to bury themselves in hidden skin folds. When a tick first bites, you likely won’t feel anything at all. The tick secretes a numbing agent in its saliva so you don’t notice the bite right away.
It takes time for the tick to anchor itself and start feeding. This is when the bite may start to become noticeable. At first, a tick bite feels similar to a mosquito or flea bite – a slightly itchy, irritating sensation on your skin. You may see a small red bump where the tick attached itself. The area may feel a bit tender. But in the beginning, it’s easy to dismiss a tick bite as just an ordinary bug bite.
How does a tick bite feel after time passes?
As the tick continues to feed, its body will become engorged with blood. This is when tick bites tend to become more noticeable. An engorged tick is physically larger, up to the size of a pea. As it grows, you will likely feel a harder lump on your skin where the tick is feeding.
Common symptoms at this stage include:
- A visible red bump on your skin, potentially growing larger
- A firm or hardened area – this is the tick’s body as it fills with blood
- Mild itchiness, irritation, or burning sensation around the bite
- Slight tenderness or pain if the area is touched
You may also experience some mild skin reactions around the bite, like redness, swelling, or bruising. But in general, an attached tick is usually not extremely painful.
Can you feel when a tick detaches?
After a tick has fed, it will detach itself and fall off your skin. This usually takes place anywhere from 3 to 6 days after the initial bite. When a tick detaches, some people feel an itching, stinging, or burning sensation. There may be some residual pain, redness, or irritation where the tick was feeding.
However, it’s also common not to notice when a tick falls off your body. Since they secrete anesthetics in their saliva, the area can remain numb even after the tick detaches. Some people only realize the tick is gone when they notice the bite area is still marked but no tick remains.
What do tick bites look like?
Tick bites can vary in appearance, but here are some characteristics to look for:
- Small red bump on the skin
- Hard or firm lump where the tick is/was embedded
- Ring-shaped rash around the bite
- Bruise-like area
- Scab in center of bite
- Skin redness and irritation around the bite
The area may look swollen and inflamed. As time passes, the scab in the center may fill with pus and look infected. Some people have no visible skin reaction at all.
When should you seek medical care for a tick bite?
In most cases, you can safely monitor a tick bite at home. Apply antibiotic ointment and cover with a bandage. Watch for signs of infection like increasing redness, warmth, swelling, and pus.
See a doctor if you experience:
- Rash anywhere on your body
- Flu-like symptoms like fever, chills, muscle aches
- Neurological issues like weakness, numbness
- Increasing pain or oozing pus at bite site
These could indicate a tick-borne illness that needs treatment.
Diseases transmitted by tick bites
Ticks can transmit a number of dangerous infectious diseases. The most common tick-borne diseases in the United States include:
|Lyme Disease||Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria||Rash, fever, chills, fatigue, joint pain|
|Anaplasmosis||Anaplasma phagocytophilum bacteria||Fever, chills, muscle aches, nausea|
|Ehrlichiosis||Ehrlichia bacteria||Fever, headache, muscle pain, nausea|
|Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever||Rickettsia rickettsii bacteria||Fever, rash, headache, abdominal pain|
|Babesiosis||Babesia parasites||Fever, chills, fatigue, muscle pain|
|Tick-borne Relapsing Fever||Borrelia hermsii bacteria||Fever, chills, muscle aches, nausea|
These diseases have a range of nonspecific symptoms, like headache, fever, and fatigue. See a doctor if you feel unwell after a tick bite so proper diagnostic tests can be run.
How long does it take for tick-borne illness symptoms to appear?
If you contract an illness from a tick bite, symptoms typically begin 3-30 days after the bite occurred. But in some cases, symptoms may not show up for weeks or months after the initial bite.
Here is the usual incubation period for common tick-borne diseases:
- Lyme disease: 3-30 days
- Anaplasmosis: 1-2 weeks
- Ehrlichiosis: 1-2 weeks
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: 2-14 days
- Babesiosis: 1-6+ weeks
- Tick-borne Relapsing Fever: 3-15 days
Monitor yourself closely for any unusual symptoms or feelings of being unwell in the weeks following a tick bite. Even if you don’t display symptoms, your doctor may recommend testing for certain tick-borne diseases as a precaution.
Can you get sick from a tick that wasn’t attached or feeding?
No, you cannot get an illness from a tick that simply crawled across your skin but did not bite and attach. Ticks need to feed on your blood for a prolonged period to transmit disease.
However, it’s easy to miss a feeding tick. They can be very small, especially in their nymph stage, and may go completely unnoticed on your body. It’s advisable to check yourself thoroughly for any embedded ticks after being outdoors in a tick-prone area.
What are the first aid steps for a tick bite?
If you find a tick attached to your skin, follow these steps:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers and grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible.
- Pull straight up slowly and steadily until the tick releases its hold.
- Do not twist the tick during removal. This may cause the head to detach and stay in your skin.
- Thoroughly clean the bite area and apply antiseptic.
- Do not try to burn the tick off or apply petroleum jelly or other irritants.
Save the tick in a sealed container in case you need it tested later. Watch closely for symptoms of illness and contact your doctor if anything concerns you.
How to prevent tick bites
You can take these precautions to protect yourself from ticks:
- Avoid areas with tall grasses, shrubs, and brush
- Walk in the center of trails when hiking
- Use EPA-registered insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus
- Treat clothing and gear with 0.5% permethrin
- Wear light colored long sleeves and pants
- Perform tick checks after being outdoors
- Shower soon after coming inside
- Tumble dry clothes on high heat to kill any lingering ticks
Can a dog or cat spread tick-borne diseases to humans?
It’s possible for ticks to spread certain illnesses between pets and humans. These include:
- Lyme disease
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Make sure to check your pets for ticks after time outdoors. Ask your vet about tick prevention products approved for animals.
When to see a doctor for a tick bite
Consult a doctor if you experience any of the following:
- Rash, especially if it looks like a bull’s eye around the bite
- Flu symptoms like fever, muscle aches, headaches
- Weakness or tingling/numbness in arms/legs
- Increasing redness, warmth, swelling, oozing around bite
- You think the tick’s head may still be embedded in skin
A doctor can determine if antibiotic treatment or testing for tick-borne diseases may be warranted based on your symptoms and tick exposure risk.
Tick bites often go unnoticed at first, but may become more apparent over several days as the tick grows larger from feeding. Common symptoms include a red bump or rash, a firm lump, and some itchiness and tenderness. Watch out for any flu-like feelings or other unusual symptoms in the days to weeks following a bite and see a medical provider right away. With prompt diagnosis and treatment, most tick-borne illnesses can be effectively managed.