It’s bad enough to get a tick bite. Not only is it gross to have a parasite feeding off you, but you’ve also got to vigilantly pay attention to the bite spot to make sure a Lyme disease rash (see these pictures) doesn’t form.
Some people experience another issue after bites: The tick bite itches like crazy. If you have an itchy tick bite and are worried that this is a sign of Lyme disease, here is what you need to know.
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Tick Bites Usually Don’t Itch…
If you’ve got an itchy tick bite, then it’s probably annoying that many major health websites say that tick bites don’t cause itchiness. EverydayHealth says, “Unlike the bites of mosquitoes and other insects, tick bites do not tend to cause itching or immediate skin irritation.” WebMD simply says that a tick bite “isn’t usually itchy” and Seattle Children’s Hospital bluntly states that “A tick bite does not cause pain or itch.”
Despite what these health websites say, itchy tick bites are common – especially if you get bit by ticks often.
What Causes Tick Bites to Itch?
Like with other parasites that feed on blood, ticks have chemicals in their saliva. The chemicals act as anesthetics and histamine blockers. Normally, these chemicals will prevent you from feeling any pain or itchiness so the tick can feed freely, but some people experience a reaction to the tick saliva which causes itchiness.
In some rare cases, an itchy tick bite is an allergic reaction to chemicals in the tick’s saliva. However, ticks have had millions of years to evolve their saliva to prevent reactions. Crazily, ticks actually adjust the chemicals in their saliva as they are attached, so your immune system (usually) won’t be able to detect them! ( 1, 2)
The More Frequently You Get Bit By Ticks, the More Likely It is to Itch
Here’s where things get really cool. If you get bit by ticks often, it’s more likely that your tick bites will itch.
After getting bit by a tick multiple times, your immune system starts to recognize proteins in the tick saliva. Even the tick’s cool trick of adjusting the chemicals won’t work anymore: Your body will realize that there’s a foreign invader in it and start mounting an immune response. That immune response can cause redness, inflammation and itchiness at the tick bite site. The clinical term for this is “acquired cutaneous hypersensitivity response.”
One study published in Emerging Infectious Disease (EID) found that the probability of itch doubled as the number of reported tick bites increased. After the first tick bite there was a 21% probability of itchiness. After the second bite, the probability increased to 46%. After the fourth tick bite, there was a 97% probability of experiencing itchiness!
Embedded Tick Heads Also Cause Itchiness
Another reason that your tick bite might itch is that the head broke off while you were removing it. Speaking from experience, a tick head stuck in your skin will cause inflammation and a lot of itchiness. If you see a little black dot in the wound, it’s probably the mouthparts. There’s no reason to panic. Here is how to remove a tick head stuck in your skin.
Is An Itchy Tick Bite a Sign of Lyme Disease?
If the bite site feels itchy immediately after removing the tick or in the days afterwards, there’s no need to worry: it is not a sign of Lyme disease. In fact, the study published in EID found that people who experienced itchiness after tick bite had a lower chance of Lyme disease. The researchers hypothesize that this is because ticks which cause itch will be noticed and removed sooner. The immune reaction which causes itchiness might also help prevent Lyme disease.
Having an itchy tick bite doesn’t mean you don’t have Lyme disease. It just isn’t a sign of Lyme. Tick bite itchiness is usually mild. If you have severe itchiness or it lasts for a long time, play it safe and call your doctor.
If you remove a tick within 24 hours of it biting, the chances of getting Lyme are very low – but you must remove the tick properly! I like these pointy tweezers shown below.
What Can I Put on a Tick Bite to Stop It from Itching?
For itchy tick bites, I usually use an activated charcoal poultice. The activated charcoal (AC) pulls chemicals out of the skin. AC is very useful, so it’s something I always keep in my first aid kit anyway for things like upset stomach. You can buy it in bulk for pretty cheap here.
To make the poultice:
- Mix a equal parts of activated charcoal and flaxmeal in a cup. Add just enough water to get a gooey consistency. The flaxmeal is optional, but helps the poultice get a better constitency.
- Spread the mixture on a piece of gauze. Fold it into a little packet.
- Place the packet on the tick bite site.
- Wrap some plastic wrap around the packet. This will help the poultice stay in place and keep it from getting messy.
No activated charcoal? You can also use these remedies for an itcy tick bite:
- Broadleaf plantain poultice: Plantain is a weed which is probably growing in your yard right now. You just mash it up before using it in a poultice. Don’t use the plantain which looks like a banana. 🙂
- Lavender poultice: I haven’t tried this but a lot of people say it works for tick bites.
- Tea tree oil: Just put a few drops on bite site.
- OTC hydrocortisone creams
- Baking soda: Mix some with water to make a paste and apply over the tick bite site.
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Do tick bites make you itchy? What do you do about it? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Title image credit: “Tick bite wound” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by rosaamarilla