You Think You Got Bit by a Tick. Now What?

Spending time outdoors is all fun and games…until you see a black spot on your body that looks like a tick. Cue a state of panic and wondering “Crap, what do I do now?” So we asked Richard S. Ostfeld, PhD, disease ecologist and distinguished senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

What should I do if I think a tick bit me?

A tick bite might appear as a small red bump or rash. “A suspected tick bite should be followed by close attention to symptoms over the next few weeks,” explains Ostfeld. You’ll want to watch out for fever or flu-like symptoms. Those “could indicate a tick-borne disease that should be checked by a doctor.”

Oh, and “if it’s possible to collect the tick, it’s a good idea to do so,” says Ostfeld. That way, you can get it to a tick specialist (through your county’s health department or a local university) to ID it. “Each common species of North American tick is associated with different diseases, so the identity of the tick is useful,” he explains. And that can help with diagnoses and treatment options.

Just because you get a tick bite, doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get sick. “So many tick bites, roughly 60 to 90%, do not result in disease,” says Ostfeld. Even if the tick that bit you is positive for Lyme disease or another tick-borne illness, “it still may not have transmitted an infection,” he explains.

What activities make me more prone to a tick bite?

Outdoor activities like gardening and other yard work, hiking — even walking your dog. “Ticks are much more common in forested and shrubby areas,” and “survive better in shaded conditions,” says Ostfeld.

But he says there are steps you can take to protect yourself from getting bitten:

  • Frequently check your skin for ticks. This “can help with early detection and removal,” he explains. Pay close attention to moist, protected areas of your skin — armpits, groins, behind the ears, and back of knees — where ticks often attach themselves.

  • Wear long pants and tuck pant legs into socks, since “most ticks we encounter are near the ground,” explains Ostfeld.

  • Use repellents that contain DEET or picaridin, or products with permethrin. These chemicals can repel or kill ticks before they bite.