Ticks are small parasitic organisms that feed on the blood of mammals, birds, and sometimes reptiles and amphibians. They are found throughout most of the world and can transmit a variety of potentially serious infectious diseases. Therefore, it is important to remove ticks as soon as possible after they attach to the skin.
How do ticks attach and feed?
Ticks go through four life stages: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. After hatching from the egg, ticks must eat blood at every stage to survive. Ticks find hosts by detecting animals’ breath and body odors, or by sensing body heat, moisture, and vibrations. Once on a host, ticks crawl up the legs or other parts of the body for a protected place to feed.
Ticks bury their mouthparts into the skin and can be difficult to detect once attached. They use their mouthparts to cut into the skin and insert a feeding tube. They also secrete compounds that cement them to the host as well as anesthetize the feeding area to avoid detection. Ticks feed slowly on blood for several days before dropping off.
Diseases transmitted by ticks
Many ticks carry pathogenic organisms that can infect humans and animals. Diseases transmitted by ticks include:
- Lyme disease – Caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. Transmitted by blacklegged ticks.
- Anaplasmosis – Caused by Anaplasma phagocytophilum bacteria. Transmitted by blacklegged ticks.
- Babesiosis – Caused by Babesia parasites. Transmitted by blacklegged ticks.
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever – Caused by Rickettsia rickettsii bacteria. Transmitted by American dog ticks, brown dog ticks, and others.
- Ehrlichiosis – Caused by Ehrlichia bacteria. Transmitted by lone star ticks, blacklegged ticks, and others.
- Tularemia – Caused by Francisella tularensis bacteria. Transmitted by American dog ticks, wood ticks, and others.
- Tickborne relapsing fever – Caused by Borrelia species bacteria. Transmitted by soft ticks.
- Colorado tick fever – Caused by Colorado tick fever virus. Transmitted by the Rocky Mountain wood tick.
- Tick paralysis – Caused by a toxin in tick saliva. Transmitted by American dog ticks, Rocky Mountain wood ticks, and others.
Risks of leaving a tick embedded
There are several potential risks if a tick is not removed promptly after attaching and feeding on your skin:
Many tickborne diseases require the tick to be attached for 36-48 hours or more before pathogens can be transmitted to the host. However, some diseases like Lyme can be transmitted in less than 24 hours. The longer an infected tick stays attached, the greater the risk it may transmit disease.
The longer a tick remains embedded, the harder it is to remove completely as it cements itself and its mouthparts become firmly attached. Incomplete removal of a tick’s mouthparts can lead to secondary infections.
Ticks secrete irritating or toxic compounds in their saliva that can cause redness, swelling, and itchiness around the bite area. Leaving ticks embedded allows continued secretion of these substances and increases local skin reactions.
Some tick species can induce a progressive flaccid paralysis in humans and animals that starts in the lower limbs and spreads upwards. Paralysis is caused by a neurotoxin in tick saliva that is usually reversed after the tick is removed. Delayed tick removal prolongs toxin exposure and can increase paralysis severity.
Signs and symptoms of a tick-borne illness
Symptoms of disease may begin within a few days to a few weeks after a tick bite, depending on the pathogen. Common signs and symptoms include:
- Rash at the bite site, especially slowly expanding “bull’s-eye” rash indicating Lyme disease
- Flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, and fatigue
- Joint pain and swelling
- Neurological symptoms like facial palsy or nerve pain
- Gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Abnormal blood cell counts indicating Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis etc.
However, many tickborne diseases can be asymptomatic, mild, or have non-specific symptoms in the initial stages. Therefore, monitoring the bite area and watching for signs of illness are important even if symptoms are not readily apparent.
How to safely remove a tick
If you find a tick attached to your skin, it is crucial to remove it promptly and completely to lower disease risk and prevent additional health issues. Follow these steps for safe tick removal:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers and grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible.
- Pull upward slowly and steadily without twisting until the tick releases its grip. Avoid squeezing or crushing the tick.
- Disinfect the bite area and wash your hands thoroughly.
- Save the tick in a sealed container for identification if needed.
- Watch for symptoms of illness and contact your healthcare provider if any develop.
Avoid using petroleum jelly, hot matches, or other home remedies to try to force a tick to back out. These methods don’t work well and may cause the tick to regurgitate pathogens into the bite wound.
When to see a doctor for a tick bite
You should consult a healthcare provider if:
- You are unable to fully remove all parts of an embedded tick
- The tick was engorged when removed or was attached for over 36 hours
- The bite area looks infected (increasing redness, drainage, swelling)
- You develop any symptoms of illness after the bite, especially rash, fever, chills, headache, joint/muscle aches, or neurological symptoms
- You have been bitten by a tick known to transmit disease in your geographic region
- The patient is a child or elderly person who is more vulnerable to infections
Your doctor can provide guidance on use of prophylactic antibiotics in certain situations and on monitoring for signs of Lyme disease or other tickborne illnesses after a bite. Blood tests may also be warranted if symptoms develop.
Preventing tick bites
You can take these precautions to prevent tick bites:
- Avoid areas with tall grasses, brush, and leaf litter where ticks thrive.
- Use EPA-registered insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
- Treat clothing and gear with permethrin.
- Wear light-colored long pants and long sleeves outside.
- Be extra vigilant for ticks after activities like camping, hiking, or gardening.
- Check your body and clothing thoroughly after being outdoors.
- Shower soon after coming inside.
- Talk to your vet about tick prevention products for pets.
Ticks can transmit many different pathogens that cause serious diseases like Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. It is crucial to remove embedded ticks as soon as possible to lower the risk of contracting an illness. Leaving a tick in place allows more time for disease transmission, can cause greater localized skin reactions, and in rare cases may lead to tick paralysis. If you are unable to remove all tick parts, or experience any signs of illness after a bite, promptly consult a healthcare professional for evaluation and treatment. With prompt tick removal and awareness of symptoms, most tick bites can be managed effectively.