How to Identify a Tick Bite

Written by eric feigenbaum
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How to Identify a Tick Bite
Stay covered when walking in tall grasses to avoid tick bites. (grass image by timur1970 from

If after a walk in the woods or a meadow, you suddenly notice a freckle or a mole on your skin that didn't used to be there, take a good look at it because it might not be what it appears to be. Tick bites are usually not noticed, but they can leave you with an itchy, allergic reaction at the bite site. However, the potential of the blacklegged tick and the deer tick to transmit lyme disease is a real danger.

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    Check yourself for ticks. If there's anything positive about tick bites, it's that they are easily identified because the tick is almost always still attached. You know it's a tick if it's either wide and flat or engorged. They go from one state to the other as they feed. The other key giveaway is that ticks are the only insect that keeps its mouth in your skin and latches on.

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    Remove the tick with fine-tipped tweezers by grasping its head, getting as close to your skin as possible, and pulling it straight out. Do not twist or break the tick if possible. Afterward, clean your skin with soap and warm water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state to not use a hot match, petroleum jelly or other products to remove a tick.

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    Study the tick's anatomy to identify it. Hard ticks have shielded bodies with heads and mouths visible from above. Soft ticks -- the kind you have to worry about -- bury their heads into the skin while their soft bodies engorge with your blood. Knowing the variety of tick helps doctors identify what diseases, if any, you may have been exposed to via the bite.

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    Use a magnifying glass or a microscope to zoom in and get a detailed view of the tick. Deer ticks or blacklegged ticks have brown, teardrop shaped bodies with three black legs pointing backward and two front legs aimed forward. Their West Coast counterparts look the same, but they with a black area below their heads. These are the two varieties to be most concerned about as they can carry Lyme disease. The Lone Star tick owes its name to the tiny white dot or "star" on its back. Lone Star ticks carry a disease known as Southern tick-associated rash illness, or STARI, which mimics Lyme Disease, although it has different causes and treatment. Dog ticks are solid brown except for their tiny black heads. They don't usually carry disease, but can be carriers of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

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    Alert your physician of your findings and better yet, save the tick in a plastic bag if possible. This may be useful to show a doctor or hospital.

Tips and warnings

  • Monitor both the bite site and your overall health. Lyme disease often begins with a red and white ringed rash around the bite site. Fever and vomiting also are possible. Neither Lyme disease nor STARI necessarily flare up right away, so stay vigilant for at least a week and see a doctor at any sign of illness. Lyme disease can be treated easily in its beginning stages, but can become treatment resistant and ravaging to the body if left to progress.

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