Ticks and their bites FAQ
Below we have provided a response to frequently asked questions about ticks and their bites. For more comprehensive information, see our "Ticks" section.
Follow the question links below to go to specific answers, or go straight to the first question and answer.
- What does a tick look like?
- How big is a tick?
- Do ticks fly?
- How many kinds of tick are there?
- Does it hurt when a tick bites?
- What do I do if I get bitten?
- Do all ticks carry diseases?
- Are there any safe areas where infected ticks are not present?
- If my pet brings ticks into my house, will they bite me?
- If ticks get into my house, can they breed there?
- How do I kill ticks in my home and garden?
- How can I avoid being bitten?
- How do I remove a tick from myself or my pet?
- Are there any ticks around in winter?
Q.1 - What does a tick look like?
A.1 - Ticks are members of the same family as spiders and so they look similar. Newly hatched ticks only have six legs until they reach the second stage of their life cycle. At this time they develop eight legs, just like spiders.
Ticks can vary in shape, colour and size, depending on the species, age and sex. Generally, when unfed they are oval, flat and small, like a sesame seed. Once they are completely engorged with blood they are coffee-bean-shaped.
The colour of ticks ranges from black or dark-brown, to a red-brown, when they haven't fed. Ticks that are engorged with blood can range from a blue-grey colour to a purple-red or fleshy-pink. Some species of tick have slight patterns on their back, while others are plain.
Ticks can be hard-bodied or soft-bodied. Hard ticks have a hard shield on their backs while soft ticks have a leathery hood over their back and head. You can see the differences in ticks' size and colour by visiting our Gallery.
Q.2 - How big is a tick?
A.2 - Ticks vary in size depending on their species, sex, life stage, and whether they have fed. It is usually a species of hard tick that bites people and pet animals, and two of the most commonly encountered species are the sheep tick and the hedgehog tick. When they first hatch into larvae, they are tiny (around 0.5mm), the size of a full stop. Their next life phase is the nymphal stage, which is slightly bigger at approximately 1.5mm. The largest size of unfed tick is the adult female, at approximately 3mm. The male is slightly smaller at around 2.5mm. Once fed, the tick becomes swollen to many times its original size. A fully-fed adult female is about the size of a small coffee bean.
Q.3 - Do ticks fly?
A.3 - No. Ticks do not fly or jump. They wait for a host on vegetation until it passes by. As the host brushes past, the tick latches on to it with hooked legs. Ticks can sense the direction of the host through chemicals from the host's breath and skin. They can also sense changes in temperature, and in light levels as a shadow is cast over it by the host.
Q.4 - How many kinds of tick are there?
A.4 - There are several hundred species of ticks worldwide. In the UK there are 15 species that are known to have attached to humans. Some species do so more commonly than others and it depends on the habitat and surrounding wildlife as to the types of ticks encountered.
Q.4 - References and Further Reading
Q.5 - Does it hurt when a tick bites?
A.5 - No, not usually although some species are reported to have painful bites. Ticks have specialised saliva which serves to numb the bite area, to keep it from becoming swollen, and to keep the blood flowing so that they can feed for prolonged periods of time. The saliva of some species contains toxins that can cause paralysis. In most cases the saliva causes slight localised irritation and sometimes an allergic reaction. However, a reddening around the bite area may also be early signs of disease. It is therefore important to learn to recognise the wide variety of presentations of rashes that are associated with tick-borne infection.
Q.6 - What do I do if I get bitten?
A.6 - If you find an attached tick, use a safe method of removal. It is a good idea to save the tick for later identification in case you become ill in the following weeks. If you are bitten with regularity, make sure your GP is aware of the fact that you are exposed to possible infection.
To save the tick, write the date of the bite in pencil on a piece of paper and put it with the tick in a sealed plastic bag in the freezer. Your doctor can use the information to assist in making an accurate diagnosis. Although not every tick carries infection, and not every bite will transmit disease, immediate removal of an attached tick is important as this can reduce the risk of disease transmission. The longer a tick is allowed to feed, the more organisms can pass into the blood stream of the host.
If you know that you were bitten but the tick was squashed by clothing or brushed off, disinfect the bite site thoroughly. Check that no mouth parts remain in the skin. If you find any bits left in, remove them with a sterilised needle or fine-pointed tweezers. Keep a close watch for the development of any skin rashes or inflammation to the bite site. If any develop, photograph them and seek medical attention. Photographs can be very useful during medical consultations after the rash has subsided.
If you suspect that you have been bitten but didn't see a tick, keep watch on the bite site for any adverse skin reactions.
In all cases, if you experience any change in your general health, it is advisable to seek medical attention. See our "Diseases" section for comprehensive information on tick-borne diseases in the UK.
Q.7 - Do all ticks carry diseases?
A.7 - No. Not all ticks carry disease. Many will carry some type of infective organism but they may not necessarily cause illness. However, it is good practice to assume that infective ticks are present and to use simple defensive measures to prevent being bitten. See our Top Ten Tips for defence. In addition to Borreliosis / Lyme disease, ticks can carry a number of infections concurrently. See our "Diseases" section for comprehensive information on tick-borne diseases that are present in the UK.
Q.7 - References and Further Reading
Q.8 - Are there any safe areas where infected ticks are not present?
A.8 - No. Infected ticks have been collected from the remote Scottish isles to the London parks. Ticks are known to feed on and be transported by all manner of wildlife, farm livestock, birds, rodents, reptiles and domestic pets. Although certain areas are considered to be "hot spots", anywhere that supports a diverse wildlife population, and that has good vegetation cover, will also support a population of ticks (including urban parks and gardens). A percentage of these ticks will carry infective organisms. Taking simple precautions can significantly reduce the chances of tick attachment and disease transmission. See our Top Ten Tips for defence.
Q.8 - References and Further Reading
Paper in PubMed - British Journal of Rheumatology. 1994 Feb;33(2):123-8. Evidence for Lyme disease in urban workers: a potential new health hazard for city inhabitants. Rees & Axford.
Paper in PubMed - Medical and Veterinary Entomology. 1998 Jan;12(1):89-97. Disribution of Borrelia burgdorferi s.l. spirochaete DNA in British ticks (Argasidae and Ixodidae) since the 19th century, assessed by PCR.
Q.9 - If my pet brings ticks into my house, will they bite me?
A. 9 - It is almost guaranteed that pets will occasionally bring ticks into the home. However, usually the tick will already be attached and feeding on the pet. If it is dislodged during this process, it will probably die. If an unfed tick is brought into the home, it would have an opportunity to attach to a person. However, generally the level of humidity in our homes is too low and ticks tend to get too dry and die as a result. The most effective way of keeping ticks from entering the home is to keep pets treated against ticks.
Q.9- References and Further Reading
Journal of Medical Entomology
Article: pp 372-375
Duration of Exposure to Suboptimal Atmospheric Moisture Affects Nymphal Blacklegged Tick Survival. Rodgers, Zolnick and Mather.
Q.10 - If ticks get into my house, can they breed there?
A.10 - No. Female ticks generally mate on their host and then drop off onto the ground to lay their eggs in the soil. The soil keeps the eggs moist so that they don't dry out and they can later hatch into tiny larvae. The larvae then need to feed on a host and moult. To moult they also need the right humidity. Most homes are heated and are far too dry for ticks to survive in. They are also unsuitable for a female to lay her eggs in and for the eggs to survive. The best way to keep ticks out of the home is to keep pets treated against ticks. It is also possible to deter ticks from your garden by using strategic landscaping and planting schemes.
Q.11 - How do I kill ticks in my home and garden?
A.11 - Unfortunately there are no licensed chemical products available to kill ticks in the environment. This is because chemical control is heavily restricted by laws and licensing, as it generally raises concerns regarding its effect on the environment and public health.
Soft furnishings in the home can be treated with Pyrethrum-based sprays, which are available from pet shops and veterinary surgeries. However, Pyrethrum-based products are highly toxic to cats and should not be used in households where cats are present. It is also important to follow the manufacturers' instructions to avoid accidental poisoning to your pet by overdose. It is advisable to discuss suitable products with your vet.
Keeping your pets treated against ticks is generally sufficient control against ticks within the home.
You can help to deter ticks from your garden by using strategic landscaping and planting schemes.
If you live in a particularly heavily tick-populated area, use a repellent and suitable clothing when you are outside and this will help prevent ticks entering the house on your clothing.
Q.12 - How can I avoid being bitten?
A.12 - There are simple precautions that you can take
against being bitten. Wear suitable clothing that makes it hard for ticks
to get close to your skin. The less exposed skin the harder it is for
ticks to attach. Use a repellent as this will help to deter ticks from
climbing on to you. Walk in the centre of paths rather than in the rough
because ticks wait on vegetation for a host to brush past.
See our Top Ten Tips for ways to avoid tick attachment.
Q.13 - How do I remove a tick from myself or my pet?
A.13 - How you remove a tick is very important as it can help prevent the transmission of infective organisms and leaving bits of the tick behind, which can cause infection and scarring. Using methods of freezing, burning, or applying solutions to a tick can cause it to regurgitate its stomach contents, which may contain infective organisms. See our section on Tick Removal for the safe way to remove an attached tick.
Q.14 - Are there any ticks around in winter?
A.14 - Yes. Ticks can be active at temperatures as low as 3.5°C. They use plant debris to shelter in during cold weather. The debris acts like a duvet keeping the tick warm. On warmer days during the winter the temperature can be sufficient for them to seek a host. Although there are considerably fewer ticks in cold weather it is still possible to get bitten.
Q.14 - Reference and Further Reading
Bulletin of Entomological Research. Volume 91, Number 1, Feb 2001, pp.69-78(10). Age structure of population of Ixodes ricinus (Acari: Ixodidae) in relation to its seasonal questing. A.R. Walker.