Tick Bite First Aid: Best Tips for Prevention and Recovery


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Picture this: a busy mom takes the afternoon off from domestic duties to go romp through the fields with her kids.  Everyone’s having a great time and then the mom looks down and sees it – the unmistakable brown body of a tick climbing up her sweet toddler’s arm. Should the mom freak out?  Strip her child down looking for other hitchikers?  No, because mom knows exactly what to do if bitten by a tick.

tick clasped with tweezers on gray background

Deer ticks, dog ticks, and lone star ticks, and Rocky Mountain wood ticks are just a few of the most common kinds of ticks in the United States. They are not only creepy, they can also transmit Lyme Disease,  Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and other tick-borne illnesses.  Make it a habit to check yourself and your companions for ticks and tick bites after you spend time outdoors.  Here is a complete guide to give you confidence when dealing with ticks.

Photo Credit 

Medical disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, nor do I want to be. Consult your doctor for any specific concerns you may have about ticks and tick bites.

Tick-Borne Illnesses

First, it’s very important that you don’t panic! Most tick bites on humans are relatively benign and pose no long-term threat.  Fewer than 5% of tick bites lead to any illness at all according to Science News. 

Stay calm and understand that while most tick bites are gross, they aren’t necessarily dangerous.  Some tick-borne illnesses can be severe so it’s important to take precautions.

Lyme Disease

Ticks carrying a bacterial infection spread Lyme disease throughout the United States, southern Canada, and much of Europe.  Although it presents itself in stages, most people don’t recognize the symptoms of Lyme disease until stage 2. 

A rash at the bite site might be the first symptom you notice, but not everyone will get a rash.  As time goes on, symptoms include fevers, aches and joint pain, multiple rashes, painful swelling, and irregular heartbeats.  If you notice any of these symptoms, it is essential to visit your primary care doctor.  

common rash seen after a tick bite on the back of a woman's knee

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

Like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is caused by a bacteria transmitted by infected ticks. It is most prevalent in the south and southeastern United States but has been diagnosed in other regions as well.  It is a serious disease that can be FATAL if not treated with antibiotics. 

Symptoms include a fever, rash, headache, vomiting, stomach pain and loss of appetite.  If you have symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and have been in a known tick habitat, see your healthcare provider immediately. 

The disease progresses rapidly and can lead to lifelong conditions or even death. Your doctor will most likely perform tests but it can take precious time to receive the results.  The CDC recommends doctors treat suspected Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever with doxycycline even if you’re still waiting on confirmation. 

Steps you should take if you are bitten by a tick.

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First Aid for Tick Bites

So now that I’ve thoroughly scared you and grossed you out with tales of tick borne diseases, let’s get to the good part – what to do if you’re bitten by a tick. If the tick is attached, the first step will be to remove it from your skin. 

How to Remove a Tick

Tick removal is not as simple as just grabbing it and pulling. Go slowly to avoid disturbing the tick.  Potential bacteria or illnesses are released through the tick saliva.

  Use a pair of tweezers and grab the tick as close to the head as possible.  With a straight out and up motion, pull the tick out without twisting it. If the head gets left behind, that’s okay.  You can try to grab it again, but don’t dig around or “fish” for the head.  Your body will eventually push it out on its own or you can see your doctor for assistance. 

Clean the Skin Around the Tick Bite

Once you’ve removed the tick, it’s important to clean the area properly with soap and water. Use antibacterial soap, rubbing alcohol, or iodine to clean the area well and wash your hands.  . This is important to ward off skin infections. 

testing kit for ticks with tweezers in the foreground on a white background
Use tweezers to remove the tick and then flush it or save for testing

Dispose of the Tick or Keep it for Testing

Whether you decide to flush the dirty bugger down the toilet or send it off for testing, I recommend taking a close up picture of the tick.  Your doctor can ID the tick and use this information if you have any complications.

Due to their body structure, ticks are hard to kill.  It’s recommended to flush them down the toilet and keep flushing until it is GONE. (New fears unlocked of a renegade tick climbing up the side of the toilet and to you know where.)

It’s also possible to keep the tick for further testing.  You might want to do this for a couple days until you verify that you have no rashes or other tick bite symptoms.  The Bay Area Lyme Foundation, will test your tick for free if you fill out their form and mail in the tick. You can find more free labs by Googling ‘free tick testing.’ If you decide to keep the tick, put it in a ziplock baggie and then put the baggie in your freezer. LABEL the baggie.

Symptoms of Tick Bites

Once you remove tick, watch the area over the next couple of days for signs of infection or illness. Tick borne illnesses often carry symptoms such as fever, severe fatigue, headache, body aches, and flu like symptoms. Often, but not always, there is a bulls-eye shaped rash at the site of the bite in Lyme disease. Watch for any signs of rash at all by drawing a circle around the bite spot so you will remember where it was. The bulls-eye rash is not always totally obvious or even present, so be aware of other symptoms and pay attention to your body after a tick bite.

Pinterest photo with wood tick under microscope and words what to do if you get bitten by a tick

When to See the Doctor After a Tick Bite

If you experience symptoms such as a rash, fever, headache, fatigue, or muscle aches within a few days or weeks after the bite, consult a health care provider. Err on the side of caution if the bite occurred where tick-borne illnesses are known to be present or if you suspect you’ve been bitten by a disease-carrying tick. Timely medical evaluation and appropriate testing can help identify and treat any potential tick-borne illnesses effectively.  Ask your doctor for the Elisa and Western Blot tests. These two tests are the most common tests used to determine tick borne illnesses. However, they can have false negatives and sometimes one might be positive when the other is negative. 

What do Tick Bite Rashes Look Like?

A tick bite rash varies in appearance depending on the individual and the specific tick-borne illness involved. The bull’s-eye rash, often seen in cases of Lyme disease, starts as a small red spot or bump at the site of the bite. Over time, it expands and forms a circular or oval-shaped rash with a red outer ring and a clear or pale center. It’s appearance is not always uniform, and it may differ in size and color intensity. Not all tick bite rashes exhibit the bull’s-eye pattern. Other tick-borne illnesses may cause different types of rashes, such as a more generalized redness or a flat, non-raised rash. If you notice any rash or skin changes after a tick bite, especially if accompanied by other symptoms, it’s crucial to seek medical attention for proper evaluation and diagnosis.

Antibiotics After a Tick Bite

Not all tick bites require antibiotics. Your doctor will consider the type of tick, the region where the bite occurred, the presence of symptoms, and the risk of tick-borne diseases in that area. Due to the severity of tick-borne illnesses, talk to your doctor right away if you suspect you have been bitten even though the vast majority of tick bites will resolve on their own. Antibiotics such as doxycycline for tick bites may be prescribed if there is a high suspicion of infection based on clinical evaluation and relevant diagnostic tests.

Get a Second Opinion if Needed

Tick borne illnesses are not something every doctor is educated in and some doctors don’t take them as seriously as they could. Seek a second opinion if you feel your voice was not heard. You can look for a LLMD (Lyme Literate Medical Doctor) to answer questions and for further testing. To find a LLMD in your area, visit the International Lyme & Associated Diseases Society website.

Colorado wood tick on a leaf

How to Prevent Tick Bites

Prevention is the best way to protect yourself when it comes to tick bites.  Ticks are often found in grassy or wooded areas and are most active in the spring and summer months.  The Centers for Disease Control recommend treating clothing and gear with  products containing 0.5% permethrin to repel ticks and other insect repellants.  Check for ticks every time after you

Stay on established trails if possible and avoid walking in grass or leaf litter. Before entering your car or home, check your clothing, gear, and animals for ticks.  We don’t want any free loaders here!  Once you are inside, remove all your clothes and take a shower within two hours.  Showering can wash away any unattached ticks.  Check your body all over, but especially warm or moist areas such as underarms, behind the knees, between the legs, around your ears, in your belly button, and your head for any ticks that may be more elusive.  Pop your clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes to kill any ticks that may have escaped your observant eye. 

Myths and Misconceptions about Tick Bites

By now, you should know the proper thing to do after a tick bite or a suspected tick bite is to consult with your doctor.  Err on the side of caution and advocate for yourself if you don’t feel your doctor is taking you seriously.  I’m sure you’ve heard all the old wives’ tales and myths about what to do for ticks, but if not, here are a few:

  • Smear the tick and bite area with petroleum jelly. Not recommended. This does not harm the tick in any way and only makes it slipperier when you try to grab it with tweezers.
  • Paint the tick with fingernail polish to suffocate it.  Nope.  Ticks breathe slowly.  You will not succeed in killing it this way but you might entice it to release more of its saliva into your skin (not what you want!).
  • Light it up with a match.  For the love of all that is holy.  Do not do this.  It will make it harder to grasp the head for removal and also you will most likely only burn yourself. 

By following these steps when you’re bitten by a tick, you’ll be able to enjoy the great outdoors with confidence and know you can take care of yourself and loved ones. Remove the tick, clean the bite, observe the area, and consult your doctor immediately if any symptoms occur.  Do what you can to prevent tick bites in the future but don’t let it keep you from getting outdoors and enjoying new adventures. 

Are you concerned about tick bites? Make sure you read this post on natural ways to prevent tick bites too.

Do you know what to do if you are bitten by a tick? Quick treatment is key to recovery & these tips will tell you exactly what to do if you get a tick bite.

About Michelle Marine

Michelle Marine is the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat, a long-time green-living enthusiast, and rural Iowa mom of four. She empowers families to grow and eat seasonal, local foods; to reduce their ecological footprint; and to come together through impactful travel.

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  1. That Bay Area company does NOT offer free testing. There are two links for companies that charge for tests…