What Does a Tick Bite Look Like?

Tick bites can cause distinct rashes. Here's what you should look out for during tick season.

So you've been out in your yard, or maybe you've been hiking or camping, and you notice a tiny bump on your skin. It doesn't seem like a bite from a mosquito, but it certainly could be from another type of insect. If you're in an area where ticks are common, your first thought may be about the harmful infections they can transmit.

But before you worry, 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 [that make you sick]," Frank Esper, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic, told 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," said Dr. Esper. "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, added Dr. Esper. A skin infection, which can be treated with antibiotics, could turn the bite red and swollen, and you might notice that it's hot and painful.

Can Tick Bites Cause Disease?

Localized skin infections aren't the only complications that these bites can cause. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ticks can also transmit dangerous bacteria that cause Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, as well as other diseases like Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI).

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 show up as a rash on your skin. You'll most likely also have other signs of infection like fever and headache, per the CDC.

tick-bite skin bite bug outdoors rash hive lyme-disease lyme
Lyme disease tick bite. Source: anakopa/Getty Images

"Lyme disease shows up as a bull's-eye ring pattern," said Dr. Esper. "That's very specific to the reaction." In the case of a Lyme disease rash, a healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotics.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), on the other hand, can cause a rash featuring small red patches dotting the skin. According to the CDC, Rocky Mountain spotted fever is one of the deadliest tick-borne diseases in America.

The CDC also states that there are between 4,000 to 6,000 cases of spotted fever each year, which includes RMSF along with others. The highest rates occur during the summer months, but you can still get bitten by ticks in the spring and fall—or any time of the year if you live in a warmer climate.

The RMSF rash, which typically is not itchy, usually begins 2–5 days following a tick bite and consists of flat, pink spots that usually start on the hands, arms, feet, and legs.

Other symptoms of RMSF include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Reduced appetite
  • Chills
  • Sore throat
  • Stomach ache
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Body aches

If you think you might have RMSF, it needs to be treated ASAP with specific antibiotics, usually doxycycline. If it's left untreated, serious outcomes can occur, including:

  • Nerve damage
  • Hearing loss
  • Incontinence (loss of bladder control)
  • Partial paralysis
  • Loss of fingers and toes (from gangrene)
Rocky Mountain spotted fever rash. Source: Mayo Clinic 

The rash from a lone star tick bite, which can cause STARI, can sometimes be confused with the Lyme disease rash. Because the rashes look so similar, healthcare providers will often prescribe antibiotics to be on the safe side. A lone star tick bite can also cause a potentially dangerous allergy to meat.

What Does a Tick Bite Look Like on a Dog or Cat?

Outdoor pets are also susceptible to tick bites, and they can fall ill with Lyme disease, too, according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC).

However, you shouldn't worry about your dog or cat passing Lyme disease to you from a tick bite. What could happen, though, is that your pet could carry ticks into your home, and the ticks could find their way to you.

According to a 2018 study published in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health, households with pets that go outside are almost twice as likely to find ticks inside the home and about 1.5 times more likely to find ticks attached to household members compared to homes with no pets.

For this reason, it's important to check your dogs and cats for insects after they've been outdoors, especially if they've been in wooded areas with high grass. Also, talk to your veterinarian about a tick-prevention medication or product for your pets.

As far as what you should watch for, you likely won't notice a tick bite on your dog or cat unless you catch the tick attached to it or you see the bull's-eye rash—which can be difficult to see through their fur.

What if the Tick Is Still Attached?

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, said Dr. Esper. "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 or twisting of the tweezers could dislodge the tick's head, warned Dr. Esper, which could then stay in your skin. The CDC advises using fine-tipped tweezers to perform the job. You can also use a tool made specifically to remove ticks.

Don't try any extreme removal procedures, added Dr. Esper. "Do not try to smother the tick [with petroleum jelly], burn the tick off, [or] poison the tick," said Dr. Esper.

The CDC recommends cleaning the site of the tick bite with rubbing alcohol or soap and water and disposing of the tick by flushing it down the toilet, placing it into a sealed container or plastic bag, or wrapping it in tape. Do not try to crush the tick with your fingers.

Next Steps

While it's possible to have the tick tested for disease, the CDC does not recommend this practice for several reasons. There aren't high standards of quality for labs that test the ticks; just because the tick tests positive doesn't mean that you were infected.

A negative test on the tick doesn't mean you weren't infected and can create false assurance. The CDC says that if you did acquire the disease, you'll probably have symptoms before you even have the tick's test results back.

Instead, the CDC recommends watching for the symptoms of tick-borne illness, including any skin rashes, fever, chills, fatigue, muscle aches and pains, and headache.

Tick bites can be scary, but with a little pre-planning, you can prevent tick bites. And with careful inspection, you can act quickly to prevent more serious illnesses.

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