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Ticks are small, insect-like creatures that can attach to you as you brush past bushes, plants, and grass. Once on you, ticks often move to a warm, moist location, like the armpits, groin, and hair. At that point, they typically attach firmly to your skin and begin to draw blood. Ticks are important as they can transmit bacteria 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 approximately 850 different types of ticks. Ticks can cause a variety of health conditions ranging from harmless to serious.
This article describes the effects of a tick bite.
This is for information only, and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
See also: Tick removal
Hard- and soft-bodied female ticks are believed to make a poison that can cause tick paralysis in children.
While most ticks do not carry diseases, some ticks can carry bacteria that can cause:
These illnesses, as well others, 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 the symptoms of tick-borne diseases in the weeks following a tick bite -- 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 location of the bite.
The symptoms below refer more to the problems resulting from the bite itself, not the diseases that a bite may cause. Some of the symptoms are specific to one variety of tick or another, but not necessarily common to all ticks.
- Apnea (breathing stopped)
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe pain at bite site (some varieties), lasting for several weeks
- Swelling at bite site (some varieties)
- Uncoordinated movement
Remove the tick (see tick removal). Be careful not to leave the tick's head stuck in the skin.
Before Calling Emergency
Determine the following information:
- Patient's age, weight, and condition
- Time the tick bite occurred
- Part of the body affected
The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. 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.
See: Poison control center - emergency number
What to Expect at the Emergency Room
The symptoms will be treated as appropriate. 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 patient may receive:
- Blood and urine tests
- Breathing support, if needed
- Chest x-ray
- EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
- Fluids through a vein (by IV)
- Medications 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 begun.
Wear protective clothing whenever possible when travelling through terrain which is known to harbor ticks. Inspect your skin and clothing after being outdoors where ticks are known to be present, and remove them as discussed above. Also inspect any household pets which have been in tick-infested areas.
Holm AL. Arachnids, insects, and other arthropods. In: Long SS, Pickering LK, Prober CG, eds. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Churchill Livingstone; 2003:chap 299.
Traub SJ, Cummins GA. Tick-borne diseases. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2011:chap 51.
- Last reviewed on 10/20/2013
- Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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This page was last updated: May 20, 2014