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5 diseases you can catch from ticks (and how to protect yourself)

Couple hiking in the woods for an article on tick bites

Tick infections can be scary, but there are plenty of ways to lower your risk. And when you know how to spot the signs, you can help make sure you get treated as soon as possible.

You just wanted to get outside and enjoy a walk in the woods. Little did you know that you came home with a tiny hitchhiker. Summer is the peak season for ticks. And their bites can be more than just a pesky problem. At least 50,000 people in the U.S. catch diseases spread by ticks each year.1

You don’t have to be one of them. We’ll show you how to reduce your risk of bites. And you’ll learn how to spot the signs of five common tick-borne diseases, just in case one sneaks a ride home.

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Tick prevention tips

The best way to prevent getting sick from tick bites is to protect yourself from them while outdoors. These tips2,3 can help:

  • Steer clear of wooded areas, tall grass and brush. But keep in mind that you don’t have to be in the wilderness to come across ticks. They could also be in your backyard, so keep the grass cut short.

  • Wear long shirts and long pants when you’re hiking or camping. And tuck your pants into your socks. Is it a cool look? No. But you’ll keep ticks from reaching your skin. And that is cool.

  • Spray tick repellent on clothing, boots and camping gear. You’ll want a product that has 0.5% permethrin.2

  • Use bug repellent on your skin. Look for one that has the chemical DEET or picaridin.2 You can also try one with oil of lemon eucalyptus. To find a product that works well, look for one registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.4 (P.S. You can use your FSA/HSA money to buy sunscreen with repellent in it. Bug spray on its own isn’t eligible. Search other eligible expenses here.)

  • Check yourself for ticks after being outside. Pay special attention to areas that ticks can hide in. Their favorite spots include:

    • Around your waist
    • Ears
    • Inside your belly button
    • Scalp
    • The backs of your knees
    • The folds of your groin (at the top of your thigh)
    • Underarms

    For best results, do buddy exams with a partner or family member. That way they can inspect areas you can’t see, suggests Daniel Griffin, MD. He’s a senior fellow of infectious disease at UnitedHealth Group and chief of infectious disease for ProHealth New York, part of Optum. Look closely, too. “The nymph form of ticks is about the size of a poppy seed. It can be a challenge to find them.”

  • Check your pets. Ticks can also latch on to dogs and cats. Make sure to check them after they’ve been outside. Also, ask your veterinarian about the right tick product for your pet. (You can save on pet medications with coupons from Optum Perks. Search now.)

How to remove a tick

If you find a tick attached to your skin, remove it as soon as possible. The longer it stays attached, the more likely it is to pass on germs.5 Here’s how to do it:

  • Use tweezers to grab the tick by its head. Get as close to your skin as possible. Pull it away steadily and firmly.

  • Don’t dig into the skin to remove any remnants. They won’t make you sick and will work their way out on their own.

  • Clean the area around the bite and your hands with soap and water. Or use rubbing alcohol.

  • Flush the tick down the toilet. If you want to save it to bring to your doctor, place it in a sealed plastic bag.

  • Call your health care provider to talk about next steps.

How to spot five common tick diseases

When certain ticks bite, they can pass on germs that make you sick. But here’s the first thing to know: You won’t have symptoms right away. Depending on the illness, they come on within a few weeks.6 This is called the incubation period. Here’s what to look for and what to do:

Tick disease #1: Anaplasmosis

Where it’s found: Northeastern and upper Midwestern U.S.7

Incubation period: Five to 14 days

Symptoms: You may experience one or several of these symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Severe headache
  • Muscle aches and pain
  • Feeling tired
  • Nausea and vomiting

How it’s diagnosed: Your doctor will order a blood test that looks for certain signs that your body is fighting off germs. The one Dr. Griffin recommends is a test that checks for immunoglobulin G (IgG)8. It’s most reliable about three weeks after a bite.

Treatment: A medication called doxycycline. Your doctor may have you start taking this medicine before the test results are in. Delaying care could cause serious illness or even death.

Tick disease #2: Babesiosis

Where it’s found: Northeastern and upper Midwestern U.S.9

Incubation period: One to nine or more weeks

Symptoms: Not everyone will show symptoms. But babesiosis can be life-threatening, particularly for older people. It also can be serious if your body disease has a weak immune system. (This is a medical problem where your body can’t fight germs well.) The common signs are:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Sweats
  • Feeling tired
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty eating
  • Sore throat
  • Yellow skin or eyes
  • Your belly feels full because your spleen or liver is enlarged

How it’s diagnosed: Your doctor will take a blood sample. The lab will look for certain abnormalities in the cells. And it will likely check your IgG levels.

Treatment: A combination of antibiotics and medication that fights parasites.

Remember, you can pay for antibiotics and medical tests with a health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA). Don’t put off getting care because of costs. Learn more now.

Tick disease #3: Ehrlichiosis

Where it’s found: Southeastern and south-central U.S.10

Incubation period: Five to 14 days

Symptoms: The number of symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. They include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Feeling tired
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Altered mental state

It can also cause a rash that looks like pin points or red splotches. Rashes are more common in children.

How it’s diagnosed: As with other tick illnesses, your doctor will order an IgG blood test.

Treatment: The medication doxycycline. You’ll likely start taking it before the results are in if you have symptoms.

Tick disease #4: Lyme disease

Where it’s found: Northeastern and upper Midwestern states, California, Oregon and Washington11

Incubation period: Three to 30 days

Symptoms: It’s possible to have one or several of these symptoms:

  • A red ringlike rash (though the look of the rash can vary)
  • Feeling tired
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle aches

How it’s diagnosed: The IgG blood test

How it’s cared for. Your doctor will give you an antibiotic, such as doxycycline. (This is a drug that fights germs.) “If you treat early enough, you only need a single dose of antibiotics to prevent illness,” says Dr. Griffin. That’s why your doctor might give you antibiotics before the blood test result comes in.

Tick disease #5: Rocky Mountain spotted fever

Where it’s found: Most of the U.S., with the most cases in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri12

Incubation period: Three to 12 days

Symptoms: Most patients get a rash within a few days of developing other symptoms. It looks like small, flat pink spots on the wrists, forearms, trunk, ankles, palms and soles of your feet. Other signs include:

  • High fever
  • Severe headache
  • Feeling tired
  • Body aches
  • Swollen eyes and hands
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty eating
  • Altered mental state
  • Trouble breathing

How it’s diagnosed: The most reliable diagnosis is through an IgG blood test. If you have a rash, your doctor may also test a small sample of your skin.

Treatment: The antibiotic doxycycline. Early treatment is important. This infection can cause serious illness and even death.

Knowing how to identify symptoms of tick bites can help keep you safe and healthy. For more health information you can use today, sign up for our newsletter. You’ll get tips and articles backed by Optum doctors and health professionals. 

Sources

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tickborne disease surveillance data summary. Last reviewed October 6, 2021. Accessed June 14, 2022.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing tick bites. Last reviewed July 1, 2020. Accessed June 14, 2022.
  3. Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Research Center. 5 tips for preventing tick bites and Lyme disease. March 19, 2019. Accessed June 14, 2022.
  4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Find the repellent that is right for you. Last updated November 4, 2021. Accessed June 14, 2022.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tick removal. Last reviewed May 13, 2022. Accessed June 14, 2022.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of tickborne illness. Last reviewed August 5, 2021. Accessed June 17, 2022.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anaplasmosis. Last reviewed October 1, 2020. Accessed June 14, 2022.
  8. National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine. Immunoglobulins blood test. Last updated December 10, 2020. Accessed June 14, 2022.
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Babesiosis. Last reviewed January 10, 2019. Accessed June 14, 2022.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ehrlichiosis. Last reviewed October 1, 2020. Accessed June 14, 2022.
  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lyme disease. Last reviewed October 1, 2020. Accessed June 13, 2022.
  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Last reviewed October 1, 2020. Accessed June 13, 2022.

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