There are lots of experiences you might hope to have while exploring the great outdoors. Taking in scenic views after summiting a hike, enjoying delicious food cooked over a campfire, and...finding a tick making itself home on your body like you sent it a formal invitation? One of these things is not like the other.
If you spot a tick somewhere on yourself, it’s normal to feel anything ranging from mild disgust to all-out alarm. But you actually don’t need to panic, because experts have some very clear steps for how to handle this unpleasant situation. Here’s exactly what you need to know about why ticks are officially The Worst, how to remove them properly, and how to avoid tick bites altogether.
If your mind jumps to Lyme disease as soon as you read the word “tick,” your instincts are on target. Ticks do indeed transmit this unpleasant illness. But they can pass other ones along to humans, too.
If you want to impress someone with your wealth of tick knowledge, you can tell them that ticks are ectoparasitic arthropods with the potential to be vectors of disease. Translation: Ticks are tiny creatures sans backbones that latch onto your body and slurp up your blood like gross, miniscule, multi-legged vampires. As if that whole blood-sucking aspect weren’t bad enough, ticks can infect you with a whole host of illnesses during this process.
Between 2004 and 2016, the number of reported cases of tickborne illnesses in the United States doubled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And, since ticks are most active from April to September—and they love to hang out in grassy, wooded areas that you may spend time in during warmer months—it’s smart to learn what might happen if you encounter these suckers.
Lyme disease symptoms can vary based on how long it’s been since your tick bite. In the first three to 30 days post-infection, Lyme disease can cause a rash (this may expand and take the shape of a bull’s-eye as time passes), headache, fever, chills, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and swollen lymph nodes, according to the CDC.
If your Lyme disease goes untreated, some of those symptoms—like headache and joint pain—may intensify. You could also experience issues like heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat, nerve pain, dizziness, and more, the CDC says.
Lyme disease treatment usually involves oral antibiotics. Taking these drugs for a few weeks typically knocks out most cases of Lyme. In a small number of cases, though, symptoms like fatigue, pain, cognitive impairment, and joint and muscle discomfort can persist for at least six months after treatment. This is what’s known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). Experts don’t know why this affects some people and not others and have found that simply continuing with antibiotic treatment can do more harm to a person’s system than good, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Because of that, experts are still investigating the best way to treat PTLDS.
Lyme is far from the only tickborne illness. From 2004 to 2016, scientists found seven new diseases that ticks can spread to humans, adding them to a smorgasbord of conditions. These include the bacterial infection anaplasmosis, which can lead to symptoms like fever, nausea, vomiting, and more, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which can cause similar issues along with a splotchy rash, and other illnesses. Here’s the long list of the various diseases humans can contract from ticks.
In general, certain ticks (and, thus, certain tickborne illnesses) crop up more in specific regions, so looking at the data on where they’re most common may help you understand which illnesses should be highest on your radar.
Clearly, ticks are persona non grata. So, if you find one on yourself, what exactly are you supposed to do?
If you see a tick anywhere on your body, the first thing you should do is remove it with the proper technique.
FYI: Proper technique does not involve screaming bloody murder, slapping some nail polish on the tick, then letting full-body shudders roll through you until that thing worms its way out of your skin. Ignore all those old wives’ tales about slathering nail polish, petroleum jelly, or other substances onto the tick.
Instead, you should use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers (or a specialized tick-removal device, if you happen to have one lying around), to grab hold of the tick’s body as close to your skin as possible without pinching yourself, the CDC says.
Then pull the tweezers away from your skin with consistent force the entire time. Jerking the tweezers can twist or crush the tick and make its body separate from its mouth, leaving those blood-sucking parts behind in your skin. If that happens, it’s not the end of the world; you can try to remove the mouth parts with the tweezers. (If that doesn’t work or you can’t make it happen without digging into your skin, back away from the tweezers, clean the area, and see your doctor.)
If you removed the entire tick, wash that section of skin and your hands with soap and water, or clean them with rubbing alcohol, the CDC says. If the tick is alive, you can put it in alcohol or wrap it in tape then dispose of it, or simply flush it down the toilet. You can also put it into a sealed container then in the freezer in case your doctor would like to examine it, the Mayo Clinic says. If you’re absolutely not down for that, you might at the very least want to take a close-up photo of the tick so you have something to show a doctor if you come down with symptoms.
For some people, removing the tick is curtains closed on the experience. But sometimes you’ll need to seek medical treatment.
If you’ve fully removed the tick and you think it’s a blacklegged one, you should see your doctor, the Mayo Clinic says. (Here’s a photo of what they and many other ticks look like. As you can imagine, a blacklegged tick has black legs, along with a black and brown body.)
Otherwise, you can wait a few weeks to see if symptoms like a rash or fever arise. If they don’t, you don’t have to see a doctor if you don’t want to (but you can also go in just to be safe).
If you weren’t able to get the entire tick out, you should definitely see your doctor for help. Or, if you don’t think it was a blacklegged tick but start experiencing strange symptoms anyway, you should go to your doctor and fill them in on details like when and where you were bitten, the CDC says. You should do the same if you live or have been traveling in an area where ticks exist and you experience weird symptoms, even if you haven’t actually found a tick on your body.
Depending on the situation at hand, your doctor may decide to administer what’s called a prophylaxis against Lyme disease, Luis Marcos, M.D., the fellowship program director at Stony Brook Medicine’s division of infectious diseases, tells SELF. That basically means they’ll give you antibiotics that may prevent Lyme disease. However, this isn’t something doctors typically give out willy-nilly; the CDC notes that the Infectious Disease Society of America only recommends this under certain circumstances, like if you were bitten in an area where Lyme is common, the tick is clearly of the blacklegged variety, and a few other benchmarks.
Your doctor could also decide to run specific tests based on your region and symptoms, if any, to confirm whether you have one of the many tickborne illnesses out there.
Wait, what about those tick-identifying apps and services you may have heard about?
Yup, there truly is an app for everything. Some scientists have been working on smartphone apps to help people get possible IDs on the ticks that have bitten them. One is called The Tick App, available on iOS and Android at no cost.
The Tick App is centered around two features. One is Report-a-Tick, which comes with the option to send in information about a tick bite, along with a picture of the offending creature, so that a group led by an entomologist at the University of Wisconsin may try to identify it. The identification will ideally come in within 48 hours, Maria Diuk-Wasser, Ph.D., a professor at Columbia University who helped develop the app, tells SELF. People who download The Tick App are also invited to participate in an epidemiological study describing things like where they live and what they do so researchers can get a sense of their risk factors for tickborne illnesses. For 15 days afterward, the app will ask them each day if any ticks have bitten them. If one has, the app will then inquire for more information to get the full picture.
“If enough people do this, we can start understanding which areas are more risky and what behaviors are more risky,” Diuk-Wasser says. Laura Goodman, Ph.D., a professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, agrees, telling SELF, “[These types of apps are] really useful for overall surveillance purposes.”
Another app, TickReport, is a spin-off of an eponymous tick testing service offered at a lab run by Stephen Rich, Ph.D., at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. TickReport (available now on Android with a launch forthcoming on iOS) will also allow people to send photos of a tick to people trained to identify tick species as quickly as possible, ideally within 10 minutes, Rich says. As the CDC notes, it can indeed be helpful to learn how to identify ticks, and if these kinds of apps help you do that, more power to you.
Though these apps are free, for a price that generally ranges from $50 to $200, people can also send ticks into labs for testing. However, as tick testing labs like those at Cornell and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst explain, this kind of service is in no way a replacement for actually seeing a doctor about a tick bite. The CDC actually doesn’t officially recommend tick testing for a few reasons. For one, diagnostic standards can vary from lab to lab in a way that they wouldn’t if they were regulated by an official agency like the CDC. Also, if a tick that bit you tests positive for Lyme or another disease, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s definitely infected you with that illness. On the flip side, a negative result for that one tick doesn’t mean you couldn’t have been exposed to other ticks that may have actually transmitted a disease to you.
So, again, tick-based apps and testing, though they sound cool, aren’t a replacement for seeking medical attention. If you’re concerned about a tick bite, talk to your doctor.
At the end of the day, it’s best if you do everything within your power to make sure ticks don’t get the chance to bite you in the first place.
“There are very real measures you can take,” Rich says. Try these:
Ticks can’t bite you if they can’t get to your skin, so wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants can help, as can tucking pant legs into socks so your ankles aren’t as vulnerable.
The CDC recommends treating your clothing and outdoor gear with a product that has 0.5 percent of the insecticide permethrin. Some companies even sell clothes that have been treated with an insecticide for some extra anti-tick oomph.
Use insect repellent the Environmental Protection Agency has sanctioned as useful against ticks.
If you’re a homeowner, Diuk-Wasser suggests considering spraying your yard with pesticides and keeping the grass cut, along with other landscaping tactics the CDC outlines here.
Talk to your vet about how best to reduce your pet’s chance of getting ticks if they spend a lot of time outside. There’s no vaccine available for most of the tickborne illnesses that can affect dogs, so you’ll need to be extra aware of preventive measures you can take.
After you get home from being outdoors, you should:
Perform a tick check. Think of it as a full-body scan using a mirror to look all over yourself for any ticks that hitched a ride home with you. Leave no
stone unturnedbody part unchecked.
Shower within two hours of getting inside, as it’s been shown to lower your risk of getting Lyme disease and possibly other tickborne illnesses, according to the CDC.
If you find a tick on your clothes, remove it (without using your fingers) and dispose of it, then wash your clothes on hot water and tumble them dry on high heat in case more ticks are hiding out, the CDC says.
Is hauling yourself into the shower and inspecting basically every inch of your skin an ideal way to decompress after spending time with Mother Nature? Probably not, but it’s better to find a tick sooner rather than later. Ideally, you’ll never need to send your tweezers on a tick removal mission, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do—and now you know exactly how to do it.