So you’ve been hiking or camping, and you notice a tiny bump on your skin; it doesn’t seem like a mosquito bite, but it could certainly be from another type of insect. If you’re in an area where ticks are prevalent, your mind might jump to worries about the harmful infections they can transmit.
But before you panic, keep in mind that ticks need to stay attached to the skin for quite some time in order to transmit the bacteria that cause illnesses like Lyme disease. “It’s those ticks that stay in you for over a day-and-a-half,” Frank Esper, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health.
In fact, unless you find a tick still attached to your skin, there’s a good chance you won’t even know you’ve been bitten by one. Unlike mosquito bites, which often cause an immediate reaction, tick bites are nearly invisible. “It’s a small little sting or puncture that, for the most part, [is] nondescript,” Dr. Esper says. “Being bitten by a tick isn’t that bad a deal. It’s whether or not that tick stays lodged in you for a prolonged period of time.”
You probably won’t start paying attention to a tick bite unless you develop an infection or allergic reaction, he adds. A skin infection could turn the bite red and swollen, and you might notice that it’s hot and painful, Dr. Esper says. A skin infection that results from a tick bite can be treated with antibiotics.
Localized skin infections aren’t the only complications that these bites can cause. Ticks can also transmit dangerous bacteria that cause Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and other illnesses. If a tick bites you and transmits one of those diseases to you, the bite itself won’t look any different from other tick bites, but the resulting infection may up on your skin.
“Lyme disease shows up as a bull’s-eye ring pattern,” Dr. Esper says. “That’s very specific to the reaction.” Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, on the other hand—which can be transmitted by ticks who are attached for about 20 hours or longer—can cause a rash featuring small red patches dotting the skin.
If you take any pets camping with you, they’re also susceptible to tick bites, Dr. Esper says. They can fall ill with Lyme disease, too. “Certainly, the ticks like dogs. They take anything with blood.” However, you shouldn’t worry about your dog passing Lyme disease to you from a tick bite. That won’t happen, Dr. Esper explains.
What could happen, though, is this: Your dog could carry ticks into your home, and they could find their way to you. For this reason, it’s important to check your dog for ticks after spending time outdoors, especially if you’ve been in wooded areas with high grass.
As far as what you should watch for, you likely won’t notice a tick bite on your dog unless you catch the tick attached to it or you see the bull’s eye rash. Though you might not notice that rash because of your dog’s hair.
If you see a tick on your body and it doesn’t brush off easily, you’ve probably caught it in the act. In this case, it’s important to remove it the right way, Dr. Esper says. “Get a set of tweezers. Pull gently and straight up. Don’t do a big jerk—just a nice, steady tug.” A sudden, violent pull could dislodge the ticks head, Dr. Esper warns, which could then stay in your skin. The CDC advises using a fine-tipped set of tweezers.
Don’t try any extreme removal procedures, Dr. Esper adds. “Do not try to smother the tick, burn the tick off, [or] poison the tick,” he says.
The CDC recommends cleaning the site of the tick bite with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
If you do remove a tick that’s been burrowed in your skin and you’re concerned about whether or not it could have transmitted an illness to you, don’t discard it. Pediatricians, general practitioners, and infectious disease specialists can advise on whether the tick should be tested for the bacteria that cause Lyme disease and other illnesses. “Put it in a little baggy,” Dr. Esper says. “Seal it. We can figure out if it’s a tick that carries Lyme disease. That’s a great relief to families.”
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