Tick tips: What you need to know about tick bites
It makes sense to think about disease-carrying ticks if you spend time near dense woodlands, where they’re typically found. But a new study suggests that residents of coastal California should also be on the lookout for the black-legged arachnids. A recent study identified Lyme disease-carrying ticks in the brush, grasses and vegetation along the California coastline as far south as Monterey County.
The good news is that there are precautions you can take. And by watching for ticks and signs of Lyme disease, you’ll lessen your chances of having a tick-related medical issue. Here’s what you need to know:
Why are ticks bad?
While most ticks are harmless, some carry diseases and can transmit those diseases to humans through a bite. The most common virus transmitted by ticks is Lyme disease.
Lyme disease may cause fever, fatigue, rash and headache. If left untreated, Lyme disease can spread to the joints, heart and nervous system causing long-term, chronic conditions such as arthritis, irregular heartbeat, facial paralysis and nerve pain. The black-legged tick (called a deer tick) spreads Lyme disease in the eastern half of the United States. The western blacklegged tick carries the disease on the west coast.
Other diseases spread by ticks include:
- Borrelia miyamotoi disease (BMD)
- Colorado tick fever
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF)
- Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI)
Preventing tick bites
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Lyme disease affects people in all 50 states and more than 450,000 Americans are treated for Lyme disease each year. It’s important to take precautions if you will be outdoors in grassy or wooded areas where ticks are likely to live.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends taking steps to protect yourself:
- Use EPA-registered insect repellents.
- Minimize exposed skin by wearing long sleeves, long pants and high boots.
- Wear light-colored clothing to help spot ticks more easily.
- Avoid walking directly into potentially tick-infested habitats such as tall grass and shrubs.
- Check your entire body for ticks upon return and throw your clothes in the dryer on high heat for 20 minutes to kill any ticks you may have missed.
What to do if you find a tick on you
You may find a tick on your clothing or anywhere on your body. They especially like warm, dark places. Make sure to check around joints (knees, elbows and armpits), behind your ears and anywhere covered in hair.
Try not to panic when you find a tick on your clothing or skin. Understanding what to do will help you stay calm, safely remove the tick and know when to get medical help.
Identify whether the tick is attached
If you find a tick, the first step is determining whether it has attached itself and is biting you. When a tick bites, it burrows into the skin to bite and draw blood before dropping off. An attached tick will have its mouth under your skin with the back parts sticking out. If the tick is already full of blood, it may appear blue-grey instead of its usual reddish-brown.
If a tick is simply crawling on you, it hasn’t bitten you. It must bite you to transmit disease.
Remove the tick
Whether the tick has bitten you or not, you need to remove it properly. Never remove a tick with your bare hands. Steps for removing a tick depend on whether it is:
- Crawling on your skin or clothing: Grab it with tweezers, a paper towel or a gloved hand. Never crush a tick because it could spread bacteria. Instead, put it in alcohol, place it in a sealed container or flush it down the toilet.
- Attached to your skin: Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull upward with a steady, slow, even pressure until the entire tick is removed. If the head breaks off and you can’t remove it, your skin will eventually push it out like a splinter. Place the tick in a sealed bag or container with a moist cotton ball in case it needs to be tested. It can also be helpful to take a picture of the tick (to identify the type) and note the date of removal.
After removing a tick, clean your hands with soap and water. If there is a wound, clean it and apply antiseptic or rubbing alcohol to the site.
Watch for symptoms of Lyme disease
After a tick bite, monitor the site. Most tick bites are harmless and will cause no physical changes. Any signs of tickborne disease typically begin within a few days to a few weeks after the bite. Keep a log of any unusual symptoms you experience.
Symptoms of Lyme disease and other tickborne diseases include:
- Expanding red rash
- Muscle or joint pain or aching
- Neck stiffness
- Swollen lymph nodes
Know when to see a doctor for a tick bite
The CDC recommends seeing your doctor if you develop a rash, fever or other unusual symptoms within several weeks of removing a tick. Be prepared to tell your doctor about the recent tick bite, when the bite occurred and where you may have come into contact with the tick.
If you’ve been bitten by a tick and are showing symptoms of tickborne disease, make an appointment to see your primary care provider.