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Tick bites occur when a tick (a type of arachnid in the same family as scorpions, mites and spiders) latches onto the skin of humans, usually in a moist, dark area, such as under the arms, in the groin, between toes or on the scalp. 

A close up of a tick on human skin

Ticks are known as ectoparasites that feed on blood – blood satisfies all their nutrient requirements. Ticks infected with the rickettsia bacteria cause what we commonly call tick bite fever. In sub-Saharan Africa there are two types of tick bite fever:

  1. Mediterranean spotted fever transmitted by the ticks on domestic animals
  2. And African tick bite fever transmitted via cattle and game.  

It’s important to note that in rare case, ticks can spread infectious diseases from humans to humans and from animals to humans. These ticks are known as vectors of disease (as are mosquitoes). Tick-borne diseases include Lyme disease and a severe bacterial infectious disease known as tularaemia, among others.

What are its symptoms?

Tick bite fever symptoms and signs include the following:

  • A black mark at the site of the bite, around 2 to 5mm in diameter, known as an eschar
  • Swelling around the eschar
  • A severe headache
  • A general feeling of ill health
  • Swollen lymph nodes near the bite area
  • Nightmares

Symptoms of tick bite fever usually present five to seven days after being bitten. Complications of tick bite fever include encephalitis (brain inflammation), pneumonia, and damage to the brain and heart. 

How is it diagnosed? 

Diagnosis can be made by checking the body for the presence of the tell-tae bite or eschar, with accompanying symptoms as mentioned above. 

Other ways to diagnose tick bite fever include:

  • Laboratory tests to establish the presence of antibodies, although this is only useful a week or two after symptoms first appear.
  • Laboratory tests to exclude other infections if patients become very ill.

What are your treatment options? 

Generally tick bite fever can be effectively treated with the antibiotic, doxycycline. Topical medication can be given for the inflammation and rash caused by the bite. 

More specific treatment will depend on the prevalence of diseases in a community (for example, if Lyme disease is endemic in a certain area), identifying what kind of tick it was and for how long it was attached. 

For severe symptoms, hospitalisation and intravenous antibiotics may be necessary.

Can it be prevented? 

Prevention takes the form of protecting yourself from tick bites by doing the following:

  • When hiking, wear long pants and long sleeves.
  • Repellants that contain DEET (or diethyltoluamide) can be effective, but need to be reapplied every few hours.
  • Clothing impregnated with permethrin insecticide may also help to a certain extent.
  • Body inspections: Check yourself and your children, and get someone to check you for ticks, especially if you are in a tick zone. To remove a tick, grip it as near to the skin as possible with tweezers and ensure the mouthparts are removed as well. The sooner a tick is removed, the less likely it is to transmit rickettsias. Don’t squash the tick, rather flush it or burn it. If you are not able to remove the head, it’s advised to see your doctor. Wash your hands and the site of the tick bite, and apply antiseptic cream.
  • Pets should be protected from ticks with effective veterinary products. 

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in June 2016