Tick bites – what you need to know

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Hemal Shah, Lead GP
As autumn approaches, so does tick season. Although they're very rare, tick-borne illnesses can be serious. But there's plenty you can do to prevent tick bites or deal with them quickly if they occur

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Quick facts

  • Ticks are most common in grassy, shady areas
  • Wearing long-sleeved shorts and long trousers tucked into your boots can help prevent tick bites
  • Quick spotting and removal of ticks can help protect you and your family from tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease

As the autumn approaches and leaves start to change colour, there’s nothing better than exploring the great outdoors. But if you're going hiking through dense forest or grassy areas — or anywhere else where it’s shady — be sure to keep an eye out for ticks.

What are ticks?

These small parasites are members of the spider family that attach to skin, causing bites that can lead to tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease (see below). Not all ticks cause this bacterial infection – it’s carried by around 12% of ticks.

As tick bites are usually painless, you may not even notice you’ve been bitten (which is why regularly checking for them is important – see below).

Ticks are found throughout the year, but they're most active in spring and autumn. They’re common in woodland and forests, but ticks can be found anywhere that it’s damp and shady. They can’t jump or fly, but it’s easy to pick one up if you are walking through long grass or greenery. They can be tiny — as small as 0.5mm, which is around the size of a poppy seed — and grow no bigger than 1.5cm (though their bodies balloon out when they feed).

Symptoms of Lyme disease

If you get bitten by a tick, you may get symptoms of Lyme disease. These symptoms appear after 1-4 weeks (or anywhere from 3 days to 3 months), often in the form of a redness or rash around the bite (see below). Lyme disease may cause flu-like symptoms such as:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Joint or muscle pain

If left untreated, Lyme disease can progress to more serious symptoms including persistent fatigue, neurological symptoms and inflammatory arthritis.

What to do if you get bitten by a tick

If you get bitten by a tick, or see a tick bite on your skin, you should remove it. You can do this with a pair of tweezers. Follow these steps:

  • Pinch the tick as close as you can to the surface of your skin
  • Grab the tick and pull it straight up away from the skin
  • Check the bite site to see if any parts of the tick are still there – like the head or mouth parts. Remove them if so
  • Use soap and water to clean the bite site

Once removed, you can see a GP to talk about your risks and any complications to look out for.

What does a tick bite rash look like?

In Europe, around three out of five people who are bitten by a tick will develop a rash.

The most common type of tick rash occurs at the bite site. It's quite distinctive, and looks like a bull’s-eye, with a red circle around the immediate area, then a circle of clear skin, and then another ring of redness. These changing stages can appear gradually. However, sometimes this all merges into one large rash with a darker central circle. The edges of the rash might feel slightly raised.

The rash probably won’t be itchy but might feel warm to the touch. Most rashes will appear within the first four weeks but can emerge any time between three days and three months after being bitten.

Symptoms to look out for after a tick bite

Wondering what happens when a tick bites you? Thankfully, most people won't see any symptoms after being bitten by a tick. But you may be allergic to tick bites, and in that case, you should look out for pain and swelling where the bite is, a burning sensation, blisters, a rash and difficulty breathing.

What can I do to prevent tick bites?

The simplest way to avoid being bitten when you’re in tick-infested habitats — such as forest, woodland, or long grass — is to wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers, tucked into your socks.

Other preventative steps include:

  • Using an insect-repellent for ticks which contains 20-30% DEET or 20% Picaridin
  • Applying this repellant to any exposed skin and reapplying it regularly as you would with a sunscreen
  • Treating boots, clothing and camping gear with 0.5% permethrin (an insecticide) spray or solution (you can get wash-in formulas effective through several washes)
  • Keeping to the centre of paths and trails and trying not to brush up against greenery
  • Carrying tweezers in your first-aid kit to remove ticks as quickly as possible (see below)

Where and when should I check for ticks?

Check for ticks regularly if you are in a high-risk area. The sooner they are removed, the lower the risk of developing tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease. Generally, in order for you to become infected, it’s required that the tick be stuck to the skin for at least 24 hours.

Adults are most likely to be bitten on the lower legs. With children, the most commonly bitten areas are the head, neck and around the armpits.

How can I remove a tick safely?

The safest way to remove ticks from the bite site is to:

  • Use tweezers or a specially designed tick-removal tool
  • Grasp the tick as closely as possible to the skin
  • Pull upwards, with a steady even pressure
  • Never twist or jerk the tick as this can risk leaving the mouthparts behind
  • Clean the bite with antiseptic or soapy water

Should I see a doctor?

If you develop any symptoms of Lyme disease, speak to your doctor straight away and let them know if you have been bitten, or think you might have been. Do this even if the symptoms disappear as this doesn’t necessarily mean the disease has gone away too.

You will probably be given a two-to-three-week course of antibiotics if you have suspected or confirmed Lyme disease to kill the bacteria which transmit the disease. And remember, it’s important to finish the course, even if your symptoms subside.

See a GP about a tick bite

If you're concerned about a tick bite or would like to talk about symptoms of Lyme disease, book an appointment with a doctor.

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