Billings Clinic
Especially For:

Illness & Conditions - Symptoms

Tick Bites

Tick Bites

Topic Overview

Picture of a tick

Ticks are small spiderlike animals (arachnids) that bite to fasten themselves onto the skin and feed on blood. Ticks live in the fur and feathers of many birds and animals. Tick bites occur most often during early spring to late summer and in areas where there are many wild animals and birds.

Most ticks don't carry diseases, and most tick bites don't cause serious health problems. But it is important to remove a tick as soon as you find it. Removing the tick's body helps you avoid diseases the tick may pass on during feeding. Removing the tick's head helps prevent an infection in the skin where it bit you. See Home Treatment for the best way to remove a tick.

Usually, removing the tick, washing the site of the bite, and watching for signs of illness are all that is needed. When you have a tick bite, it is important to determine whether you need a tetanus shot to prevent tetanus (lockjaw) .

Some people may have an allergic reaction to a tick bite. This reaction may be mild, with a few annoying symptoms. In rare cases, a severe allergic reaction ( anaphylaxis ) may occur.

Many of the diseases ticks carry cause flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, and muscle aches. Symptoms may begin from 1 day to 3 weeks after the tick bite. Sometimes a rash or sore appears along with the flu-like symptoms. Common tick-borne diseases include:

Tick paralysis is a rare problem that may occur after a tick bite. In some parts of the world, tick bites may cause other tick-borne diseases, such as South African tick-bite fever .

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

This site requires ActiveX controls and plug-ins to be enabled. If not already installed, the Free Adobe Flash Plugin is available for download.
Get Adobe Flash Player

Home Treatment

Most ticks don't carry diseases, and most tick bites don't cause serious health problems. The sooner ticks are removed, the less likely they are to spread disease.

Some ticks are so small that it is hard to see them. This makes it hard to tell whether you have removed the tick's head. If you do not see any obvious parts of the tick's head in the bite site, assume you have removed the entire tick, but watch for signs of a skin infection .

  • Use fine-tipped tweezers to remove a tick. If you don't have tweezers, put on gloves or cover your hands with tissue paper, then use your fingers. Do not handle the tick with bare hands.
    • Grab the tick as close to its mouth (the part that is stuck in your skin) as you can.
    • The body of the tick will be above your skin. Do not grab the tick around its swollen belly. You might push infected fluid from the tick into your body if you squeeze it.
    • Pull the tick straight out until its mouth lets go of your skin. Do not twist the tick. This may break off the tick's body and leave the head in your skin.
  • Do not try to smother a tick that is attached to your skin with petroleum jelly, nail polish, gasoline, or rubbing alcohol. This may increase your risk of infection.
  • Do not try to burn the tick while it is attached to your skin.
  • Put the tick in a dry jar or ziplock bag and save it in the freezer for later identification if necessary.
  • Wash the area of the tick bite with a lot of warm water and soap. A mild dishwashing soap, such as Ivory, works well.
  • If a bite becomes irritated, apply an antibiotic ointment, such as bacitracin or polymyxin B sulfate, and cover it with an adhesive bandage. The ointment will keep the bite from sticking to the bandage. Note: Stop using the ointment if the skin under the bandage begins to itch or a rash develops. The ointment may be causing a skin reaction.
  • After you remove the tick, wash your hands really well with soap and water.

When you return home from areas where ticks might live, carefully examine your skin and scalp for ticks. Check your pets, too.

Home treatment to help relieve pain and itching

  • Apply an ice pack to your bite for 15 to 20 minutes once an hour for the first 6 hours. When you are not using ice, keep a cool, wet cloth on the bite for up to 6 hours.
  • Try a nonprescription medicine for the relief of itching, redness, and swelling. Be sure to follow the nonprescription medicine precautions.
    • An antihistamine medicine, such as Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton, may help relieve itching, redness, and swelling. Don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.
    • A spray of local anesthetic containing benzocaine, such as Solarcaine, may help relieve pain. If your skin reacts to the spray, stop using it.
    • Calamine lotion applied to the skin may help relieve itching.
  • After the first 6 hours, if there is no swelling, try putting a warm washcloth on the bite for comfort.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:

Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

Prevention

To prevent tick bites:

  • Apply an insect repellent. Use insect repellents according to the directions on the label, particularly when applying repellent to children.
  • Apply repellents safely. Some insect repellents can only be safely applied to clothing rather than skin.
    • Use a lower-concentration repellent on children.
    • Do not put repellent on small children's hands, since they often put their hands in their mouths.
    • Wash the insect repellent off with soap and water after returning indoors.
  • Cover as much of your skin as possible when working or playing in grassy or wooded areas. Wear a hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and long pants with the legs tucked into your socks. Keep in mind that it is easier to spot ticks on light-colored clothes. If you think you may have a tick on your clothing, put your clothing in a clothes dryer for 10 to 15 minutes to kill the tick.
  • Wear gloves when you handle animals or work in the woods.
  • Take steps to control ticks on your property if you live in an area where Lyme disease is prevalent. Clearing leaves, brush, tall grasses, woodpiles, and stone fences from around your house and the edges of your yard or garden may help reduce the tick population and the rodent population that the ticks depend on. Remove plants that attract deer, and use barriers to keep deer—and the deer ticks they may carry—out of your yard. Treating yards with chemicals that kill ticks (ascaricides) is sometimes effective but exposes you and your pets to chemicals that may not be safe. You may choose to treat your lawn for ticks with nonchemical or environmentally safe methods instead. Call your local landscaping nursery or county extension office for more information.
  • Stay away from tick-infested areas.

For information on how to specifically prevent Lyme disease, see the topic Lyme Disease.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • When were you bitten? How many times were you bitten? If you saved the tick, bring it with you to your doctor's appointment. If not, be prepared to describe the tick.
  • What are your main symptoms?
  • When did your symptoms begin? How have your symptoms developed, progressed, or changed since the bite?
  • What home treatment have you tried? Did it help?
  • When was your last tetanus shot?
  • Have you traveled in the wilderness or in another country recently?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised December 23, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

© 1995-2013 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Print This Page
Email to a Friend
Home | Contact | Site Map | Site Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions | Patient Privacy Policy | Medical Records | Fast Command
2800 10th Ave. North | P.O. Box 37000 | Billings, Montana 59107 | 406.238.2500
© Copyright 2014 Billings Clinic. All Rights Reserved.