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What is a tick bite?
Ticks are parasites that feed on warm-blooded hosts by biting them. A tick bite can infect humans and animals with bacteria, viruses and protozoans (organisms made up of one cell) that can cause diseases. Some of these conditions can be very serious and may include:
- Lyme disease.
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
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.
Ticks are typically small and difficult to see until they have been attached for some time. They feed on your blood and become larger and easier to see.
Are there different kinds of ticks?
Ticks are parasites that feed on warm-blooded hosts. They are related to mites and spiders because they are all arthropods. That means they have eight legs. There are many kinds of ticks. Some of the most common ticks in the U.S. include:
- Blacklegged tick, also known as deer ticks.
- Lone Star tick.
- Dog tick (American dog tick and brown dog tick).
Ticks can vary in size and color. Some are larger. Some are brown or reddish-brown. Others are darker. Some have lighter markings on their backs.
How common is it to have a tick bite?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 50,865 cases of diseases caused by tick bites in the U.S. in 2019.
How does a tick bite affect my body?
You might not even know you’ve been bitten by a tick. Most don’t cause pain or itching but some do. Some tick bites don’t cause disease. Sometimes you can remove the tick before it can pass on any germs.
The tick bite itself may not cause symptoms except for some type of skin reaction, like a rash or a small hard lump. The infection that tick bites can give you may begin to cause symptoms.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms that a tick bite might cause?
Many of the conditions caused by ticks have common symptoms that include:
- Muscle pain.
- Itchiness or irritation, but usually not right away.
- Skin rash.
Some rashes caused by ticks indicate the infection. Small reddish or purplish spots (called petechiae) happen in Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Expanding rashes that may look like a bulls-eye are the erythema migrans signal of Lyme disease. A similar rash happens with southern tick-associated rash illness or STARI. STARI’s rash may be known as the Lone Star tick rash.
Some rashes can just look like small red or darker-colored blotches that can be difficult to see.
What does a tick bite look like or feel like?
It might be hard to tell if you have a tick bite until they have fed on your blood and become larger. That’s why it’s important to check yourself when you’ve been in places where ticks live.
What parts of the body are most likely to have a tick bite?
Ticks can get onto any part of your body, but they move to their preferred places, which is usually a place with soft skin and plenty of blood. For people, this means:
- Your scalp and neck.
- Between your legs.
- Legs, especially behind your knees.
- In your belly button.
- In your ears, or around them.
- Under your arms.
- Around your waist.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is a tick bite diagnosed?
Ticks like wooded areas and high grasses. Paying attention if you walk in these types of areas will help you be aware of the possibility of tick bites. They like leaves. If you hike trails, try to stay in the center away from fallen leaves and brush.
Sometimes you might be able to find and keep the tick that has bitten you. Ticks aren’t like other insects that bite you many times. They usually bite once and then burrow into your skin. If this happens and you’re able to find and remove the tick, you or your healthcare provider can identify the type of tick. You want to know if it’s the kind of tick that spreads disease.
Your provider will ask you questions about your medical history and about your time spent in tick-infested areas. In some cases, you may need blood tests.
Management and Treatment
What should you do about a tick bite?
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 your 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.
When should you call your healthcare provider if think you have a tick bite?
You should call your 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 flu-like symptoms after a tick bite.
- If you have pain or blistering.
What can’t I eat after a tick bite?
There is a certain kind of tick bite that causes something called alpha-gal syndrome. The condition is also called alpha-gal allergy, red meat allergy or tick bite meat allergy.
Alpha-gal is a type of sugar molecule that is found in meat and other products made from mammals. Alpha-gal isn’t found in humans.
Studies in the U.S. and elsewhere indicate that tick bites cause alpha-gal syndrome, which may develop two to six hours after you eat meat, dairy or take medicines that are made with gelatin. Signs and symptoms may include gastrointestinal problems such as:
- Stomachache, sometimes severe.
- Heartburn or indigestion.
Other signs and symptoms may include:
- Rash or hives.
- Lowered blood pressure.
- Shortness of breath.
- Being dizzy or faint.
- Swelling of your lips, throat, tongue or your eyes.
Actually, alpha-gal syndrome can be life-threatening. Lone Star ticks and black-legged ticks may be the ones found in U.S. that cause alpha-gal syndrome.
How can I reduce my risk of getting a tick bite?
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. Check your hair, body folds and inside your belly button, or behind your knees, along your beltline, between your legs, in or behind ears, underarms and your 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.
Is there a vaccine for preventing diseases caused by a tick bite in humans?
Recently, a vaccine to prevent tick-borne encephalitis was approved in the U.S. for adults and children. This vaccine is called TicoVac™. It has been used in Europe for many years. Vaccines for other diseases caused by tick bites, such as Lyme disease, aren’t currently available.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have a tick bite?
If you’re bitten by a tick, you may have absolutely no problems. If you have any concerns, contact your healthcare provider anyway.
In some cases, providers may decide to begin treatment even before a disease has been diagnosed. This is true if your provider suspects Lyme disease. The percentage of ticks that can infect you with Lyme disease can be as high as 50% in some areas.
Generally, you won’t need antibiotics to treat most tick bites.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
See your healthcare provider if you find a tick bite or a tick burrowed into you.
Make sure to see your provider if you start to have signs or symptoms of tick-borne disease weeks or days after you’ve been in areas with ticks. These signs or symptoms include:
- A rash that gets larger.
- A fever.
- Aches and pains in joints or muscles.
- Extreme tiredness.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Even thinking about ticks may make you feel itchy. The best way to deal with them is to try to prevent them from landing on you or biting you in the first place. Make sure to use protection before you go hiking. Prevent your pets from ticks, too. If you do get bitten, try not to panic. Not every tick bite will lead to further illness, but if you do develop flu-like symptoms, contact your healthcare provider for next steps.
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