Symptoms and Signs of Ticks

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 12/2/2021

Doctor's Notes on Ticks

Ticks are bloodsucking arthropods classified as either hard or soft ticks with over 800 species. Hard ticks have a hard plate or scutum on their back while soft ticks do not. Both types attach to the skin of humans or other animals by their mouthparts to get blood. Hard ticks may stay attached for days while soft ticks may attach for only hours. The first sign or symptom is seeing a tick (range from small pinpoint-size to about 10 mm and are mainly brownish or grayish in color) attached to your skin or on your clothing. Generally, tick bites are usually painless (except for some soft ticks), but over time, other signs and symptoms develop. The bite site may cause local muscle weakness or even local paralysis. After ticks drop off, bite areas may develop redness or a rash with itching and burning. In addition, soft tick bites may cause localized intense pain. Late signs and symptoms may include developing allergic reactions to red meats or the development of a bite infection with red streaks, swelling, and swollen lymph nodes in areas adjacent to the tick bite.

Other signs and symptoms of a tick bite are related to the tick bite as a vector for other pathogens that cause disease. There are at least 14 different diseases transmitted by different tick bites. Various ticks may produce noticeable signs and symptoms, usually after the tick has detached itself. For example, Lyme disease (caused by Borrelia species of bacteria) can produce a rash in the shape of a bull's-eye while Rocky Mountain spotted fever (caused by R. rickettsii) can produce a spotty skin rash with a fever and neck stiffness.

Secondary symptoms and signs are caused by pathogenic organisms spread to humans during the tick bite.

What Is the Treatment for Tick Bites?

Treatment of tick bites is mainly to reduce the chances of getting sick. The chances of getting sick increase the longer the tick is attached and feeding. The steps of treatment include the following:

  • Remove the tick as soon as possible.
    • Use fine-tipped tweezers to horizontally grab the tick as close to its mouth and skin junction.
    • Pull upward with steady pressure; do not twist, bend, or jerk the tick.
    • Then clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
    • Tick disposal: Flush it down the toilet or place it in rubbing alcohol in a sealable container or plastic bag (for identification, if necessary).
    • Some health care experts suggest a single dose of doxycycline may lower the risk of tick-borne Lyme disease, especially if Lyme disease is common in your area.
    • Call your doctor to see if you need additional care. For about 30 days after the tick bite, watch for additional symptoms and signs like rash, fever, joint swelling and/or pain, fatigue, and headache.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.