Tick bites become more common as weather becomes warmer, and while ticks are no reason to stop enjoying the great outdoors, it is important to know how to care for a tick bite as well as what signs of infection to watch for. Here we'll provide all the information needed for tick bite treatment and first-aid.
What Are Ticks?
While many people would think ticks are insects, they are actually arachnids, the same family with spiders, mites and scorpions. They feed on the blood of warm blooded mammals, whether that mammal is a deer, a dog or a human.
Ticks find their way to their human hosts when humans walk through woods or brush and come in contact with the low vegetation where the ticks reside. The ticks will then make their way to warm, dark places on the body, which means they are most commonly found under the arms, in the groin area or on the inner legs.
Ticks are extremely effective carriers of diseases and when they bite, they attach very firmly and can feed for quite a long period of time. This means that anyone who is bitten by a tick is at an increased risk for certain infections that are carried by ticks. Ticks are most active during the summer months, but tick bites can occur all year long.
Ticks have four life stages: egg, 6-legged larva, 8-legged nymph and adult. Both male and female larvae feed on hosts and go through two moltings before they reach adulthood. Female adults will feed on a host and then lay their eggs.
Female ticks are particularly dangerous to children because the females make a poison that has been shown to cause tick paralysis, but only in children. Tick paralysis is ascending, which means that it begins in the lower body and works upward. The good news is that once the tick is found and removed, the neurotoxin causing the paralysis stops flowing into the bloodstream and recovery usually follows quickly.
Tick bites are responsible for the transmission of several diseases including:
- Lyme disease
- Colorado tick fever
- Rocky mountain spotted fever
Because of the risk of infection that is associated with tick bites, it's important to remove the tick quickly as well as take care of the bite.
What To Do If Bitten?
If bitten by a tick, it's important to remove the tick quickly and completely. This is often easier said than done because ticks attach so firmly. Ticks feed on blood so when they feed they must puncture the skin and disease can then pass into the blood stream.
If bitten, remove the tick as quickly as possible. While there are a number of "old wives tales" regarding the removal and disposal of ticks, most serve as examples of what NOT to do. If someone isn't comfortable removing the tick themselves, they can see a doctor and have it removed, but it must be done quickly as diseases can be transmitted in as little as 36 hours.
To remove a tick, grasp it firmly with a tweezers as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight up. It will be somewhat difficult to remove. Do not twist the tick as this can cause part of it to break off in the skin, causing infection. Once the tick is removed, wash the affected area and hands with anti-bacterial soap and water, or use a disinfectant like rubbing alcohol or an iodine scrub.
After the tick is removed, the person should be evaluated by a doctor. The reason for this is that often antibiotics can be given that would prevent an infection from occurring. In the past infections were treated after symptoms manifested, but research has shown that antibiotics can effectively be used in a prophylactic capacity that will prevent the infection from multiplying and spreading.
What NOT To Do
Most of the "old wives tales" serve as examples of what not to do. If someone suffers a flea bite they should NOT:
- Do not twist a tick to remove it. This can cause parts of the tick’s mouth to break off in the skin and lead to infection.
- Do not try and burn the tick off. It likely won't work and will just lead to a burn and an even higher chance for infection.
- Do not paint the tick with nail polish or smear any sort of grease or oil on the tick. The tick needs to be removed quickly and these methods will eventually make the tick fall off but until it does, the tick is still feeding and exposing the host to infection.
Signs To Watch For
Because tick bites can transmit disease, there are signs of infection that should be watched for. Often the infections don't show up until several weeks later, so it's important to make a note as to when the tick bite happened. If medical attention is needed, the doctor will want to know this information.
These symptoms are associated with the tick bite itself, not of an infection:
- Stiff neck
- Muscle or joint aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Flu-like symptoms
There are also some symptoms associated with the numerous infections that ticks can transmit, including:
- Trouble breathing
- Apnea (stopped breathing)
- Pain at the bite site that can last up to several weeks
- Swelling at the bite site
- Erythema migrans (A bright red rash that looks similar to a bull's eye that extends several inches from the bite site)
- Weakness, especially in the lower body that moves upward
- Uncoordinated movement
If any of these symptoms are observed, particularly in children seek treatment immediately. Most of the infections that ticks transmit are easily treated with antibiotics and clear up quickly, but they can have some serious complications if left untreated. So while many people think that tick bites are just minor insect bites, they can be serious and each one should be taken seriously.
- Medline Plus
- PubMed Health
- State of New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services
- Pocket Medicine, Fourth Edition. Marc S Sabatine MD, MPH. The Massachusetts General Hospital Handbook of Internal Medicine, 2010.