Most tick bites go unnoticed. Here’s how to identify and treat them

Ticks may be tiny, but they’re worth making a big deal over. They can spread serious diseases to you and your pets, so it’s important to be on the lookout for tick bites pretty much year-round — and pictures of tick bites can help you identify them.

With changing climate patterns and milder winters, these days, “every season is tick season,” Matt Frye, Ph.D., an entomologist and educator with the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program at Cornell University, tells

“There are ticks active all year,” he explains. “So if the temperature is above freezing, you have a chance of encountering a tick.”

And they aren’t just hiding in the woods or overgrown grass.

“We live in a residential neighborhood, and you can walk up the side of the street and our dogs come home with ticks on them,” Frye says. “Even just on the side of the road, there’s plenty of habitat for ticks to thrive.”

Because ticks can transmit many pathogens to humans, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and even Powassan virus, it’s important to be able to identify the ticks in your area and get care quickly if you think you’ve gotten a tick-borne illness .

Ticks in the United States

There are many types of ticks in the US, and they are often capable of spreading multiple pathogens. Some of the tick species that experts worry most about from a public health perspective include:

  • Blacklegged ticks, also called deer ticks, which transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease along the East Coast. These ticks also spread babesiosis and Powassan virus, the Centers for Disease Control explains.

  • The Western blacklegged tick, which can also spread Lyme disease but primarily lives on the West Coast.

  • The lone star tick can transmit Heartland virus and Southern tick-associated rash illness. It can also cause alpha-gal syndrome, which causes an allergy to red meat, explained previously.

  • The American dog tick spreads the bacteria that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever, as well as the bacteria that leads to tularemia.

Ticks are extremely small, so it's important to do thorough checks regularly if you or your pet spend any time outdoors.  (Paul Connors / The Sun Chronicle via AP)

Ticks are extremely small, so it’s important to do thorough checks regularly if you or your pet spend any time outdoors. (Paul Connors / The Sun Chronicle via AP)

What do tick bites look like?

“Tick bites really can have different presentations, and it depends on what stage you’re catching the patient after the bite,” Dr. Melissa Levoska, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells

The truth is that most people who get bitten by ticks never notice the bite itself.

“When they’re biting people, ticks have factors in their saliva that prevent pain, clotting and an immune reaction,” Frye explains. “So you may never see any evidence of the tick bite.”

Tick ​​bites - inflammation and irritation of the skin.  Risk of infection with encephalitis or Lyme disease (rbkomar / Getty Images)

Tick ​​bites – inflammation and irritation of the skin. Risk of infection with encephalitis or Lyme disease (rbkomar / Getty Images)

If you do happen to notice a tick bite, you might see a small, itchy raised bump that’s similar to a mosquito bite, the Mayo Clinic says.

You’re more likely to see the tick still attached to you with its mouthparts inserted into your skin, which is why experts encourage frequently checking yourself for ticks if you’ve spent time outside in an area where ticks might live.

Sometimes, people who have Lyme disease will develop a red rash called erythema Migrans that shows up in a bullseye pattern, Levoska says. “It can be present anywhere on the body, but more commonly it’s on the chest, abdomen, back area or the legs,” he says.

Unfortunately, “the bullseye rash is a really unreliable thing to look for with the tick bite,” Frye explains.

While experts originally estimated that somewhere between 60% to 70% of people with the disease would develop a rash like this, more recent evidence suggests that the number may actually be as little as 10% to 30%, he says.

Other tick-borne illnesses, such as southern tick-associated rash illness and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, also cause distinctive rashes, the CDC notes.

Bull's eye rash (TODAY)

Bull’s eye rash (TODAY)

When to see a doctor for tick bites

You don’t necessarily need to see a doctor every time you notice a tick bite, Frye says, because it may not have been attached to you long enough to transmit a pathogen.

Frying also suggests taking a photo of the tick if you can so that it can be identified later if necessary. You can also consider sending it to researchers in your area to find out if it carries any pathogens, but that’s not required, he says.

‘”It’d be great to know what type of tick it is, so definitely saving it can be helpful,” Levoska agreed. Even knowing what stage the tick is in the lifecycle — whether it’s a nymph or full-grown adult, for instance — can help identify disease risks, she says.

But you should make note of it and pay attention in case you develop flu-like symptoms in the following weeks, he adds. It can take up to 30 days for Lyme disease symptoms to appear after a tick bite, the CDC says.

Signs and symptoms of tick-borne illnesses

According to the CDC, the symptoms of diseases transmitted by ticks can include:

“If you’re starting to feel feverish or have any (of the above) systemic symptoms, that’s a sign to contact a dermatologist or physician to get further evaluated,” Levoska says.

In some cases, you may be eligible to receive prophylactic antibiotics after a tick bite, she adds. Specifically, if the tick looks engorged with blood, is removed within the last 72 hours and is a black-legged tick, your doctor might give you a single dose of antibiotics to prevent Lyme disease, the CDC says.

Tick ​​​​attached to the skin of a man's stomach and sucking blood.  Germany (Aitor Diago / Getty Images)

Tick ​​​​attached to the skin of a man’s stomach and sucking blood. Germany (Aitor Diago / Getty Images)

How to prevent tick bites

Frye suggests thinking about tick-bite prevention in three distinct phases: What to do before you leave the house, while you’re outside and when you get back.

Before you leave:

  • Prepare a bag of clothes to change into when you get back, he suggested.

  • Consider treating your outdoor clothes with permethrin or buying permethrin-treated gear. Unlike repellants, permethrin actually kills ticks.

While you’re outside:

  • Use repellants, like those containing DEET or other ingredients approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

  • Wear light-colored clothing that will make it easier to see ticks crawling on you.

  • “If you want to look really geeky,” Frye says, you can tuck your pants into socks to make it harder for ticks to get to your skin. But since most of us probably aren’t going to do that, pre-treating your clothes becomes all the more important, he says.

  • In tick-dense areas, perform regular tick checks while you’re outside.

When you return:

  • If you know you’re exposed to ticks, put your exposed clothing directly into the dryer on high heat for 20 minutes to kill any ticks. If you can’t do that right away, isolate your exposed clothing in an airtight bag until you can.

  • Regularly check your body — and any pets that go outside — for ticks. “It is kind of a heavy lift, but we tell people to check themselves every single day for ticks,” Frye says, which makes it easier to spot changes in your skin that might be the result of a tick. “That’s way more reliable than hoping for a rash,” he says.

And, just as crucial as preventing tick bites is knowing how to properly remove a tick should you find one attached to your skin, Frye and Levoska agree. “The most important thing to do if you were to be bitten by a tick and you see it on your body is to remove it immediately,” Levoska says.

“The best way to remove an attached tick is to use a pair of very pointy tweezers to grab as close to the head as possible, and then gently and steadily pull up,” Frye explains.

Try to avoid any twisting motions as you pull because that might break the tick and leave its mouthparts in your skin, Levoska says.

And if that does happen, you shouldn’t try to dig them out, Frye advises. Instead, if you can’t remove them with tweezers, just leave them alone. “Our bodies will push it out just like a splinter over time,” he says.

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