Tick bites: Symptoms and treatment
Just thinking about ticks can make your skin crawl. But if you enjoy hiking, hunting, time at the cabin or other shady, damp environments, encounters with ticks can be part of the package.
We’d all prefer to avoid tick bites, but if you find yourself dealing with one, there’s no need to worry – they’re often harmless. We’ll explain how to identify tick bite symptoms, how to remove a tick at home and when you should see a doctor for treatment.
What is a tick exactly?
Ticks are tiny bugs that have eight legs and are related to spiders and mites. They feed off human and animal blood to survive. Ticks are often found in damp, cool, wooded areas during the spring through mid-summer, then again in the fall. But in some areas, they can be active during other seasons as well.
Types of ticks in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest
In Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, there are about a dozen different types of ticks. The three types of ticks that people come across most often are the blacklegged tick (deer tick), the American dog tick (wood tick), and the lone star tick.
What does a tick look like?
Ticks can vary in appearance depending on the type of tick, its life stage and sex. Ticks can be grayish-white, brown, black, reddish-brown or yellowish in color. They can be as small as a grain of sand in the larvae stage to the size of a pencil eraser when fully grown.
When is tick season in Minnesota?
In Minnesota, ticks usually start to emerge after the snow melts, reaching peak activity during the month of May. They’re typically active throughout June.
As temperatures climb, tick activity declines until the fall, usually around the end of September through October. Tick season ends when temperatures drop below freezing or snow covers the ground.
Tick bite symptoms
Many people won’t experience any symptoms from a tick bite, but tick bites can cause:
- Small hard bumps or sores, redness or swelling
- Allergic reactions that can range from mild (local swelling and inflammation at the site of the bite) to severe (anaphylaxis)
- Flu-like symptoms, joint pain or a rash, which can also be symptoms of a tick-borne illness
What does a tick bite feel like?
Most likely, you won’t feel a tick bite because they don’t usually hurt. Ticks are often very small, so you might not see it until it’s been on you a few days and has grown larger. That’s why it’s important to check yourself when you’ve been in places where ticks live.
What does a tick bite look like?
A small bump may appear at the site of the tick bite. But if it develops into a rash, that may indicate illness. A rash usually appears 3-14 days after the tick bite but it can look different depending on the type of tick. Watch for small reddish or purplish spots, or expanded rashes that look like a bullseye.
Where to look for tick bites
If you’ve been in areas where ticks are common, it’s important to do a quick body check and run your fingers gently over your skin. Ticks are often found behind the knees, between fingers and toes, and on underarms. It’s a good idea to check your belly button, neck, hairline, top of your head, and in and behind your ears, too.
Symptoms of tick-borne diseases
If you’re having symptoms after a tick bite, it could be an indication that something more is going on. After you remove a tick, watch for symptoms of tick-borne illnesses which usually begin 3-30 days after the tick bite. They include:
- A red, expanding rash at the site of the tick bite or on other parts of the body.
- Flu-like symptoms, including fever, fatigue, headache, muscle and joint aches.
It’s important to see your doctor if you develop these symptoms. Even if you’ve had Lyme disease in the past, you can still contract the infection again and may need treatment for a second infection.
While most ticks don’t carry disease, it’s important to be aware of common tick illnesses, including:
- Lyme disease is the most common tick illness in the United States. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a skin rash that resembles a bullseye.
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever is often transmitted by dog or wood ticks. Symptoms include fever, headache and a rash. If not treated early with the right antibiotic, this tick disease can be deadly.
- Tularemia is a tick disease that can infect humans and animals. Symptoms can vary depending on how someone becomes infected. This illness can be life threatening if not treated early with antibiotics.
- Ehrlichiosis is spread by lone star ticks. Symptoms include fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and possibly an upset stomach.
- Babesiosis is caused by microscopic parasites that infect red blood cells and are spread by certain ticks. Many people who are infected don’t experience symptoms, but there are effective treatment options for those who do.
- Alpha-gal syndrome, a condition often caused by a lone star tick bite, is a type of food allergy to red meat and other products made from mammals.
How to remove a tick
The longer a tick is on your skin, the more likely you are to experience symptoms or contract a tick illness. If you find a tick embedded on yourself or a family member, remove it as soon as possible following these steps:
- Do not paint the tick with nail polish or other substances before trying to remove it.
- Use a tweezers to grasp the tick against the skin surface.
- Pull with a constant steady pressure until the tick is removed.
- Clean the skin with alcohol or soap and water after the tick is removed.
- Call your doctor or clinician after you remove the tick if you think it was embedded for more than 24 hours. They may want to prescribe a single dose of an antibiotic to help prevent infection.
- Keep the tick in a small plastic bag in case you need to show it to your doctor.
Tick bite treatment
Most tick bites don’t require a doctor’s visit. In fact, you can treat a lot of tick bites right at home. To relieve itching, redness, swelling and pain you can:
- Take an oatmeal bath
- Put ice or a cold pack on the bite for 15-20 minutes once an hour until the swelling and pain subside
- Try over-the-counter medicines
When to worry about a tick bite
Generally, tick bites are not a cause for concern, but you should reach out to a doctor if:
- You are unable to remove the tick completely
- A rash develops or you think the bite site is infected
- You develop flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, or a headache
When HealthPartners patients need advice from a professional, we make it easy to talk to a nurse 24/7 about all sorts of health questions, including tick bite symptoms and treatment. Call 612-339-3663 or 800-551-0859 to speak with one of our knowledgeable nurses.
And if extra care or examination is needed, you can always make an appointment with your primary care doctor or your child’s pediatrician.