How to Know If You Were Bitten by a Tick

May 7th 2016

Tick bites are a serious concern across much of North America each spring and summer. Sometimes identifying a tick bite can be done at a glance, if the tick is still present. After the tick is gone, however, identification of the bite can be difficult. Look for a concentric red rash, especially if it's associated with any of the symptoms of common tick-borne diseases, and seek help if you're in doubt about whether you've been bitten or not. If it is at all possible, bring the tick with you to the doctor for identification.

If the Tick Is Still Present

Unlike many insect parasites, such as fleas and mosquitoes, ticks don't drop off immediately after a bite. Rather, most species of tick burrow their heads into the bite wound and suck blood for several days. The surest way to spot a tick bite is to actually find a tick biting you.

Most tick species are very small when they begin to bite, but they rapidly enlarge as they fill up with blood. Look for a dark- or gray-colored mass, a few millimeters across, which may have a mottled or spotted appearance. This is the tick's swollen abdomen.

If a Rash Develops

The world has over 850 species of ticks, and it can be difficult to generalize about their bites. Much of the time a rash develops after a tick bite, but often the redness and swelling only set in days or weeks after the tick finishes its meal and falls away. Some rashes, such as those caused by Lyme disease and Southern tick-associated rash illness, are similar to each other and present as a characteristic bull's-eye red spot surrounded by a red ring. Other rashes, such as that caused by Rocky Mountain spotted fever, are less predictable and show considerable variation from one person to another.

If Symptoms of Tick-Borne Illnesses Appear

Tick bites can transmit several infections to humans, and many of these have serious or life-threatening complications. Given the diversity of tick-borne pathogens, generalizing is difficult, but the CDC urges people who may have been bitten by a tick to watch out for fever, chills, unexplained aches and pains, and abnormal fatigue, in addition to the rashes that often accompany tick bites.

Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness with particularly serious complications, can also develop telltale symptoms. About four out of five people with untreated Lyme disease develop any of a range of symptoms. Some victims develop heart and circulatory problems, while others develop various neurological symptoms, including sudden paralysis. About three-fifths of infected people eventually develop an infection-related case of arthritis.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever, another major health risk of tick bites, begins with the same initial symptoms as Lyme disease, but then moves on to diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. As it runs its course, the infection may even cause hallucinations. If any of these symptoms develop, especially during the late spring and through the summer, when ticks are most likely to bite humans, it is vital to seek professional medical help as soon as possible.


Strolling through grassland and woods is a relaxing pastime, but it carries the danger of picking up a few ticks. Tick bites are a serious concern, since the small, parasitic arachnids are known to carry a number of potentially dangerous diseases, notably Lyme disease. Knowing how to spot a tick, and how to identify a tick bite, can help you know when to see a doctor for symptoms of tick-borne illnesses.

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