Tick Bite: How to Tell If It's Made You Sick

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This survival-medicine website provides general information, not individual advice. Most scenarios assume the victim cannot get expert medical help. Please see the disclaimer.

Tips to Tell You If a Tick’s Made You Sick (Even If You Haven’t Seen One)

Lyme disease target lesion

About 80 percent of people with Lyme disease from a tick bite develop a target lesion, or bull’s-eye rash. It’s not always so visually well-defined.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Where I come from, it’s tick season. I suspect it is in your area too. On many a tree leaf or tall grass, the tiny blood-suckers lie in wait—ready to pounce on any warm-blooded creature that gets within distance—eager to share their multiple array of germs.

The CDC lists twelve tick-borne diseases in the U.S. alone. Early recognition and treatment is vital to prevent permanent disability, even death. But these diseases can be hard to diagnose. Symptoms can be very general—say, fever and muscle aches—and their onset can be delayed for days or weeks. Tick-borne diseases can be hard for a doctor to pen down.

So what if no doctor is available? Here are a few steps you can take to decrease your chance of a devastating outcome.

Tips to Repel and Reveal

If you’re going to be outside in grass or among trees:

  1. Apply tick repellents containing DEET or your favorite homemade variety.
  2. Wear light-colored clothes and a hat so the ticks will be easier to see.
  3. Feel for ticks every few hours. The sooner you get one off the better. For instance, removing a tick within thirty-six hours greatly decreases your risk for Lyme disease.
  4. When you get inside, inspect your body well. Feel every nook and cranny. Do the same with a mirror. I’ve found ticks on a person’s scalp, under an arm, behind an ear, in an ear, in a belly buttock, next to the anus, in the genital area.

The Correct Way to Remove Ticks

It’s important to remove the tick the right way.

  1. Use tweezers. You should have some in your first-aid kit anyway.
  2. Grab the tick’s head as close to your skin as possible. Squeezing its body increases the risk of squirting its germs right into you. That’s the last thing you want. By grabbing its head you also have a better chance of pulling out those barbed pincers it has stuck into your skin.

The CDC recommends not using things like a hot match head, petroleum jelly, or nail polish. Apparently, it might cause the tick to inject more of its innards.

After you remove the tick, clean the area with soap and water, or alcohol, and apply a little antibiotic ointment.

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Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever rash

Rash from Rocky Mountain spotted fever. One of the few rashes that can, also, involve the palms of the hands.

How to Recognize a Tick-Borne Infection

Many of the diseases you get from ticks cause nonspecific symptoms like fever and body aches that can come on several days, even weeks, after the bite. Also, in as many as half the cases, the infected person has no recollection of a tick bite. So you need a high index of suspicion.

  1. Know the tick-borne diseases prevalent in your area. Check the CDC or your state health department website. Know the symptoms and the treatment. Do it now, so you’ll know in case the Internet goes down.
  2. Consider the time of year. Tick season is spring and summer. That’s not flu season. The flu and other fever-causing viruses are very contagious, so if a lot of people in your group have the same symptoms at the same time, it’s more likely a contagious virus. If you’re the only one, that points more to a tick-borne disease.
  3. If you’re “lucky enough” to have a target lesion from Lyme disease (about 80 percent do) or a rash from Rocky Mountain spotted fever, that helps pin down the diagnosis, but that’s not always the case.

How to Treat a Tick-Borne Disease If You Can’t Get to a Doctor

If you don’t know otherwise by checking the CDC website, fourteen days of doxycycline twice a day hits most infections. Be sure to read up on precautions. For example, doxy is not to be used if pregnant. For those not allergic to penicillin, amoxicllin is a second choice against Lyme disease. All of these are prescription meds.

For Rocky Mountain spotted fever, chloramphenicol (prescription) is an alternative, but I’ll bet you don’t have that in your medical bag. Many times with that disease you’re going to be sick enough that you need to get to a hospital if there’s any way possible.

As with most illnesses and injuries, prevention is the best medicine. Does anyone have any tricks to keep the ticks away?

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Lyme disease target-lesion photo courtesy CDC. Rocky Mountain spotted fever rash photo courtesy CDC/ James Gathany.

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  • shhhhhh88

    With a half a can of off deep woods on me I still pulled 93 ticks from me 3 days ago. I have hives and the bites are all swollen. It itches so bad. No other symptoms that I can tell.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Wow. I’ve never seen anyone with that many. If you have hives, I’d see a doctor. Meantime, you might take some diphenhydramine (Benadryl) if you don’t mind being a bit drowsy.

      • shhhhhh88

        Everyone thought I was being dramatic until they had to help me start pulling them off. No one else had near as many. Must have been my deodorant or something.

  • Wendy

    I was diagnosed with rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in 2007. The doctor treated me for sinus infections for nearly 3 months. I was dying, slowly . .I went to see him desperately seeking help. I begged him to test me for RMSF . .his response was sarcastic: “I highly doubt you have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever but I will test for it if it will make you happy.” I lived in Springdale Arkansas. They started me on doxcy twice daily for 10 days. At 7 days they called me and apologized, telling me that I indeed did have RMSF. I relapsed over the weekend and had to wait 2 days for the doctors office to open Monday. They prescribed me another round of doxcy for 10 days. I can tell you and anyone reading this . .I am going to have to deal with the effects from this for the rest of my life. I have to stay on the best vitamins I can buy, I have bouts of pain all over my body that debilitates me. I have chronic foot and leg pain. The disease caused memory loss and I worked feverishly to get my brain working again. The CDC needs to follow those of us who have had this disease.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Wendy.

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  • Just2smart

    Thank you CDC that still refuses to acknowledge the Lyme disease
    pandemic, its worse than aids in relation to how many people are
    infected. Isn’t it uncanny how nobody wants to admit when they are
    wrong. I have symptoms of some sort of infestation/parasitic/fungal
    issues and all my doctors are concerned with is giving me a prescription
    to mask the symptoms… I have noticed the drug reps are the stripper model types and I have heard stories (i know its here-say,but….) of doctors getting vacation kickbacks and certain representative perks (lets just say the kind you get in a private room of a strip club) but I guess its legal in Bangkok, or where ever the free trip is. I also heard that this is done like a contest who ever can sell the most in the shortest amount of time (also if you get people on a prescription plan)… what this presents to me is a medical industry running a muck… where we just keep people sick by just masking the symptoms and never addressing the root cause and a medical prescription/prostitution ring… oh my has my country gone to the capitalist gutter.

    • BarryG

      And an equal number of people desperately take antibiotics for a disease the don’t have, suffering instead from the effects of too much antibiotic. The vast majority of doctors just try to treat the disease and don’t play weird games, there are far more weird patients than weird doctors. 99.9% of doctors aren’t getting free trips to anywhere and wouldn’t do anything with a stripper in Bangkok since they don’t want to catch any diseases.

      The incidence of Lymes disease if very very low. Not that many people are bit by an infected tick where the tick stays in 36 hours. If the test don’t clearly show you have limes disease, then you don’t have it.

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  • Lynda Feigh

    There are many different types of pain you may experience in your life, and it seems like for every one, there are three different types of painkillers that are supposed to be the best. There are so many different medications out there that it can be really difficult to decide which one is best for your type of pain. Are over the counter painkillers the best, or should you ask a doctor for a prescription? The following list contains many of the most common painkillers and the type of pain they are designed to deal with. Aspirin used to be the be-all, end-all cure for all types of pains, and while it isn’t as widely used as it once was, it is still good for nearly all types of aches. It has also been show to actually help lower your risk of having a stroke and of heart disease. Many people still take aspirin for pain and find that it works very well for many issues.^

    My very own web blog

  • Harlan Hermosillo

    tick bites can be dangerous too because ticks are cariers of other pathogens. *

    Latest blog post coming from our own online site