Whether you’re an outdoor adventurer, a pet owner, or you live in specific regions of the United States, you may be aware that ticks can be a serious problem. Ticks are often mistaken for insects but they’re actually parasites, which means they’re organisms that live on or inside of a host organism to get their food. “Ticks bite animals and humans and they can infect any warm-blooded creature with bacteria, viruses, or one-celled organisms called protozoans that can cause serious diseases,” explains Rob Rohatsch, MD, Solv’s Chief Medical Officer.
While hundreds of tick species exist, fewer than 60 are known to bite and infect humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 50,865 reported cases of diseases caused by tick bites in the U.S. in 2019. Two of the most well known types of these illnesses are Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
What kinds of diseases can ticks cause?
Considered the most common vector-born disease (i.e. a disease from the bite of a blood-feeding arthropod like a tick, mosquito, or flea) in the United States, Lyme disease is typically caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and rarely, Borrelia mayonii. The disease is transmitted by a specific type of tick known as a black-legged tick or deer tick, which are commonly found in grassy or heavily wooded areas. “The early signs of Lyme disease can present as a rash, fever, chills, fatigue, and more in the first month after infection, if left untreated, the disease can progress and cause serious complications like joint pain and neurological problems. The rash can be very specific with a circular shape with central clearing.” Rohatsch says.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is another type of bacterial infection spread through the bite of a tick, but the parasites that cause it are distinct from the one that causes Lyme disease. Rocky mountain wood ticks, American dog ticks, and brown dog ticks are responsible for spreading Rocky Mountain spotted fever by infecting their hosts with a bacteria called Rickettsia rickettsii. Early signs of the disease include severe headache and high fever but can progress to a rash within a few days. “The illness usually responds well to antibiotics, but if it’s not treated quickly, it can lead to serious internal damage, affecting vital organs like the kidneys and heart,” Rohatsch says.
How to avoid getting bitten by a tick
When it comes to tick prevention, one of the most important considerations is location. The majority of Lyme disease cases occur on the east coast of the United States, as well as parts of the south, the Midwest, and even California. Educating yourself on your surroundings — whether you’re at home or on the road — can help you assess your risk for contracting a tick-borne illness so you can take proper precautions.
“Prevention is essential when venturing into areas that are more likely to have ticks,” Rohatsch says. “When going into wooded areas or any locations known to have ticks, be sure to stay toward the center of the trail and out of shrubs and bushes where ticks often tend to be. And always wear clothing that covers your arms and legs — you may even consider tucking your pants into your socks to keep ticks off your skin.”
Another recommended prevention strategy is to treat your clothing and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin before going out into tick-populated locations. You can also use insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone to help prevent tick bites, but always be sure to read the directions carefully before applying and do not use products containing OLE or PMD on children under 3 years old.
“As soon as you come home from your outing, immediately check your clothing, gear, and any pets for ticks,” Rohatsch says. “If you do see a tick on any piece of clothing, put that item in the dryer for at least 10 minutes at high heat. If those clothes need to be washed first, make sure you use hot water since cold or tepid temperatures won’t kill the ticks.”
Once your clothing is removed, head straight into the shower, which can help wash off any unattached ticks. This is also the time to do a thorough tick check on yourself and any children who accompanied you outside. The important spots to check for ticks include:
- In the hair and around the hairline
- Under the arms
- In and around the ears
- Inside the belly button
- Back of the knees
- Between the legs in the groin area
- Around the waist and between the buttocks
“Be thorough in your examination because ticks can be small and their bites don’t always cause immediate symptoms,” Rohatsch says. “Some people may experience a rash or a small, hard lump at the site of the bite, but others may not have symptoms until there’s an infection, so it’s important to find the tick itself as soon as possible and remove it quickly before infection sets in.”
How to remove a tick properly at home for you or your kids
So what do you do if you spot a tick on any part of your body or your child’s body in the course of that thorough check? First of all, stay as calm as possible. “You want to remove the tick as quickly as possible, but don’t panic,” Rohatsch says. “It usually takes about 24-48 hours for the bacteria that causes Lyme diseases to travel from the tick into the host, so removal should happen as soon as possible, but there’s no need to lose your cool. You want to stay calm enough so that you can remove the tick properly and carefully.”
If you spot a tick on your skin or on your child’s skin, grab a pair of tweezers and firmly place them around the head or mouth of the tick, right next to the skin. Once you have a good grasp, pull firmly, but slowly, with straight and steady force until the tick lets go. If part of the tick remains in the skin, monitor the site and see a healthcare provider if it becomes red or further irritated. Drop the tick from the tweezers into a zip-lock bag or jar and immediately wash your hands, as well as the bite location. Clean the site of the bite with alcohol, and call your doctor or pediatrician to let them know what happened in case they want to examine the bite or prescribe a preventive dose of antibiotics.
When to see a doctor or urgent care near you
Removing the tick is the first step in preventing infection and illness, but follow-up care with a medical professional may be necessary. “You should call your medical provider as soon as you’ve removed the tick, but especially if you think the tick had been attached for several hours or even a day before you found it and removed it,” Rohatsch says. “Any sign of rash at the site of the bite or on other areas of your body, or any pain or blistering could also indicate urgent care is needed. And if you start to develop flu-like symptoms after a tick bite, be sure to seek out medical care quickly. Also, if you develop a rash that grows or morphs into a bull's-eye pattern within 3 to 14 days of the bite, this could be a sign of Lyme disease, so get care immediately.” If you would like to schedule a same-day or next-day urgent care visit for you or a family member, Solv can help.
Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
- Tick Bites (February 2022)
- Reported tick borne disease cases (2022)
- Lyme Disease (January 2022)
- Lyme Disease (2022)
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (June 2018)
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (October 2020)
- Understanding and preventing tick bites (April 24, 2017)
- Ticks (July 2020)
- Tick Removal: A Step-by-Step Guide (May 2019)