Ticks are bugs that can attach to you as you brush past bushes, plants, and grass. Once on you, ticks often move to a warm, moist place on your body, like the armpits, groin, and hair. There, they typically attach firmly to your skin and begin to draw blood. Avoiding ticks is important because they can infect you with bacteria and other organisms that cause illness.
Ticks can be fairly large, about the size of a pencil eraser, or so small that they are almost impossible to see. There are about 850 different types of ticks. Most tick bites are harmless, but some can cause mild to serious health conditions.
This article describes the effects of a tick bite.
This article is for information only. DO NOT use it to treat or manage a tick bite. If you or someone you are with is bitten by a tick, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.
Hard- and soft-bodied female ticks are believed to make a poison that can cause tick paralysis in children.
Most ticks do not carry diseases, but some carry bacteria that can cause:
- Colorado tick fever
- Lyme disease
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever
These and other illnesses may cause heart, nervous system, kidney, adrenal gland, and liver damage, and may cause death.
Ticks live in wooded areas or grassy fields.
Watch for symptoms of tick-borne diseases in the weeks after a tick bite. These include muscle or joint aches, stiff neck, headache, weakness, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and other flu-like symptoms. Watch for a red spot or rash starting at the site of the bite.
The symptoms below are from the bite itself, not from the diseases a bite may cause. Some of the symptoms are caused by one variety of tick or another, but may not be common to all ticks.
- Stopped breathing
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe pain at site lasting several weeks (from some kinds of ticks)
- Swelling at site (from some kinds of ticks)
- Uncoordinated movement
Remove the tick. Be careful not to leave the tick's head stuck in the skin. If possible place the tick in a closed container and take it to the emergency room. Then clean the area with soap and water.
Before Calling Emergency
Have this information ready:
- Person's age, weight, and condition
- Time the tick bite occurred
- Part of the body affected
Your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
What to Expect at the Emergency Room
The symptoms will be treated. Long-term treatment may be needed if complications develop. Preventive antibiotics are often given to people who live in areas where Lyme disease is common.
The person may receive:
- Blood and urine tests
- Breathing support, including oxygen (a tube down the throat and a breathing machine in serious cases)
- Chest x-ray
- ECG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
- Intravenous fluids (through a vein)
- Medicines to treat symptoms
Most tick bites are harmless. The outcome will depend on what type of infection the tick may have been carrying and how soon appropriate treatment was started. If you are bitten by a tick that carried a disease and you were not treated correctly, long-term health effects may occur months or even years later.
Wear protective clothing when traveling through an area which is known to harbor ticks. Examine your skin for signs of tick bites or ticks after your travels.
Bryant K. Tickborne infections. In: Long SS, Prober CG, Fischer M, eds. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 90.
Cummins GA, Traub SJ. Tick-borne diseases. In: Auerbach PS, Cushing TA, Harris NS, eds. Aurebach's Wilderness Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 42.
Otten EJ. Venomous animal injuries. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 55.