What are ticks?

Ticks are parasites that feed on warm-blooded hosts. They are related to mites and spiders, as ticks have eight legs (arthropods). Many types of ticks exist. Some of the most common ticks in the United States include:

  • Blacklegged tick, also known as deer ticks.
  • Lone Star tick.
  • Dog tick (American dog tick and brown dog tick).

What diseases can ticks spread?

Ticks can infect humans and animals with bacteria, viruses, and protozoans (organisms made up of one cell) which can cause diseases. Some of these conditions can be very serious and may include:

Other conditions spread by ticks include:

  • Colorado tick fever.
  • Powassan virus.
  • Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI).
  • Tick paralysis.
  • Spotted fever.
  • Relapsing fever.
  • Heartland virus.

What are the symptoms of tick-borne diseases?

Many of the conditions caused by ticks have common symptoms that include:

How can you tell if you have bitten by a tick?

It might be hard to tell if you have been bitten as most do not cause pain or itching.

Ticks are typically small and difficult to see until they have been attached for some time, fed on your blood and become larger. Even then the actual tick does not cause symptoms but the infection they have given you may begin to cause the symptoms listed above. Rashes caused by ticks may be small red spots (petechiae as in Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever) or expanding rashes that could look like a bulls-eye (erythema migrans of Lyme disease) or small red blotches which may be hard to see.

Tick burrowing into skin.

Tick burrowing into human skin

How can you avoid tick bites?

If you are planning an outdoor activity, especially those in a heavily wooded area, it is important to follow a few simple precautions to protect yourself from tick bites.

  • Wear long-sleeved, light-colored clothing, with tightly woven fabric. This gives ticks less area to target and allows you to see ticks on your clothing. Make sure you tuck your pants into your socks, shoes, or boots so that ticks cannot easily get under your pant legs.
  • When traveling through the woods or grassy fields, stay near the center of the trails. At home, make sure that you mow your lawn regularly.
  • Use insect repellents with 20% or more of DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide ) on exposed skin and clothing. Your clothes can also be treated with permethrin. You can purchase this product at most sporting goods stores. Always read product labels to be sure you use the product properly.
  • When returning from the outdoors, check for ticks. They may attach anywhere. Be especially observant of hair, body folds like inside the belly button, or behind your knees, along your beltline, between your legs, in or behind ears, underarms and the back.
  • Be sure to check your pets, too. You should discuss using tick prevention products for your pets with your veterinarian.
  • Check your clothes and gear for ticks and wash these items immediately. Placing them in a hot clothes dryer for 15 minutes will kill the ticks.
  • You should take a shower after you have been on hikes or working in your yard.

What if you have been bitten by a tick?

If you experience a tick bite, the best way to remove it is by taking the following steps:

  • Tug gently but firmly with blunt tweezers near the "head" of the tick at the level of your skin until it releases its hold on the skin.
  • Avoid crushing the tick's body or handling the tick with bare fingers as you could expose yourself to the bacteria in the tick.
  • Wash the bite area thoroughly with soap and water.
  • DO NOT use kerosene, petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline®), or hot cigarette butts to remove the tick.
  • DO NOT squeeze the tick's body with your fingers or tweezers.

Is there a vaccine for preventing tick-borne disease in humans?

Currently, no vaccines exist to prevent tick bites or tick-borne infections.

When should you call your healthcare provider if you suspect you have been bitten by a tick?

You should call the provider if:

  • You think that the tick has been attached to you for several hours or even a day.
  • If you see a rash developing at the site of the tick bite or other areas on your body.
  • If you begin to develop the flu-like symptoms described earlier after a tick bite.

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