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Spotting and treating tick bites

In partnership with Dr Hamish Black

Everything you need to know about tick bites

Man camping in the bush wearing a flanno shirt and hat
Man camping in the bush wearing a flanno shirt and hat

Tick bites can occur year-round in Australia, but they're most common during the warmer months of October through January. While tick bites are generally harmless, they can sometimes cause severe reactions or illnesses.

At nib, we consider ourselves your health partner, working with the experts to give you the tips and tricks to live your healthiest life yet. So, we spoke with nib Medical Advisor Dr Hamish Black to find out everything you need to know about tick bites, ways to avoid getting bitten and treatment options.

What is a tick bite?

Ticks are parasites that live in humid and bushy areas. They drop on passing humans and animals and feed on their blood. Tick bites don’t usually cause any complications if the tick is removed quickly and safely, but some people are allergic to ticks.

“People who have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to tick bites should have ticks removed in hospital and also carry adrenaline on them,” says Hamish.

“If you have a significant allergic reaction, you should attend hospital as soon as possible, preferably by ambulance. This would include any difficulties with breathing, swallowing or talking, and any light-headedness or confusion.”

Ticks can also cause a condition known as tick paralysis and spread tick-borne diseases including Queensland tick typhus, Flinders Island spotted fever, mammalian meat allergy and Lyme-like diseases.

What do tick bites look like?

Ticks have pear-shaped bodies that become engorged after feeding. While adults are 4mm in length, nymphs are just over 1mm and larvae are 0.5mm. They can be difficult to see and may only appear as small black dots.

When visiting known tick areas, the best way to prevent tick bites is to use insect repellent (choose one that contains DEET) and wear long-sleeved shirts and pants tucked into your socks. Afterwards, check yourself, children and pets for ticks. Putting your clothes in the dryer on high heat can effectively kill ticks.

The best way to prevent tick bites is to use insect repellent

Symptoms to look out for

If you aren’t allergic to ticks, you should only notice some redness and swelling around the bite until the tick is removed.

Some illnesses caused by ticks may only develop after it has been removed, so it’s important to keep an eye out for any symptoms.

Symptoms of a tick allergy can include:

  • Swollen throat and face

  • Breathing and swallowing difficulties

  • Collapsing

 Symptoms of tick paralysis can include:

  • Rashes

  • Fever

  • Flu-like symptoms

  • Tender lymph nodes

  • Walking unsteadily

  • Intolerance to bright light

  • Weak limbs

  • Facial paralysis

Treating a tick bite

If you aren’t allergic to tick bites, you should remove the tick as quickly as possible on your own.

“It’s best to apply a cold spray such as wart spray, Tick Off or even Aerostart to freeze the tick, and then it should fall off,” says Hamish. “An alternative is an insecticidal cream such as permethrin cream to kill the tick. The problem with removing a tick with forceps or tweezers is that you can squeeze the abdominal contents of the tick into the wound, which increases the risk of an allergic reaction either right away or when you’re next bitten by a tick.

“The main thing is to remove the tick entirely. If you’re not careful, a remnant of the head may be left in situ, which often leads to a prolonged local reaction with or without infection. If the tick is entirely removed, cleaning of the wound with soap and water is all that is needed.”

If you’re concerned you’ve been bitten by a tick, our Symptom Checker in the nib App can help you. If you need to speak with a medical professional, you can access GP telehealth including phone consultations, online scripts and at-home topical medication delivery provided by our partner Overseas workers and students can access telehealth through 24-7MedCare.

If you have a known allergy to ticks, follow your ASCIA action plan. But if it’s your first allergic reaction, don’t attempt to remove the tick yourself – head straight to the emergency department.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner. 

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

In partnership with

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.