What to Do The Moment You Discover a Tick on Your Body
In 2018, nearly 60,000 cases of tick-borne disease were reported to the CDC by state health departments and the District of Columbia. However, if you know how to remove a tick from your skin, getting Lyme disease isn’t inevitable.
While a little bug bite might not seem like much, if Lyme disease progresses, it can be very dangerous. A telltale bullseye rash or a solid red rash at the site of the tick bite often characterizes the early stages of Lyme disease. Other early symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, fever, headache, and other general feelings of achiness.
As the disease progresses, additional rashes, headaches, and body aches can occur, as well as symptoms that mirror Bell’s Palsy. Fever, fatigue, and changes in vision can also happen. Late stage Lyme disease is characterized by arthritis and disabling neurological disorders.
Lyme disease starts with a tick bite. So, it’s important to be prepared if there is a possibility of exposure. However, it is also essential to remember, even if you remove the tick, you can still develop Lyme. You may also get bitten and not even realize it.
Prevention Is Key
The best way to avoid Lyme disease is to prevent tick exposure in the first place. Insect repellents aren’t a 100 percent guarantee, but it’s a good idea to use one.
Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent ($15; amazon.com) is formulated for items such as clothing, backpacks, and tents. It’s also smart to use an additional repellent on your skin, like this top-rated DEET-free option.
Be sure to check for ticks daily, especially if you have been in the woods or walking in tall grass. Shower as soon as possible to rinse off any ticks that have yet to attach to your skin.
How to Remove a Tick
Even if you apply repellent, there is still a small chance that you can get a tick bite, so it’s essential to know how to remove a tick from your skin. If you plan on hiking, walking outside, or are going to be any place where you can potentially be exposed to ticks, it’s important to have a pair of tweezers or another tool on hand. Even just the tweezers you use to shape your eyebrows will get the job done.
- The first step is to make sure the tweezers are clean. Wash off any debris and sterilize the tool—either with alcohol or a flame. But do not flame sterilize after cleaning with alcohol because it will cause a fire.
- Grasp the head of the tick, which is right where it attaches itself to your skin. Make sure you aren’t grasping the body because the head will stay attached and it can cause an infection.
- Then, pull the tick quickly and directly away from you. A small patch of skin may come off as well.
- If you accidentally leave the head behind, get medical help as soon as possible because infection can set in.
While many people have heard the myth that you should paint a tick with nail polish or Vaseline, or heat it to make it detach from the skin, these are not smart ideas. Just try to remove the tick with tweezers quickly.
It’s also important to avoid crushing the bug with your fingers to kill it. A live tick can be disposed of by drowning in alcohol, keeping it in a sealed bag or container, flushing it down the toilet, or even wrapped up tightly with tape.
As an alternative to tweezers (or if you are afraid of ruining your favorite pair), you can try using something specifically designed for the purpose of removing ticks, such as eTradewinds Tick Remover Tool ($11; amazon.com). Made of surgical grade stainless steel, it is pre-sterilized and compact.
You Removed the Tick, So Now What?
Most importantly, don’t panic. Not all ticks carry Lyme disease or other tick-borne infections, and according to the CDC, your “risk for Lyme disease is very low if a tick has been attached for fewer than 36 hours.” Keep an eye out for symptoms for up to 30 days after removing the tick.
If you remove a tick, you may want to have it tested for disease. Note that if a tick tests positive for disease, this does not necessarily mean it was transmitted to you. Testing should be used only as part of an overall diagnosis.
To test a tick for disease, you can mail it to TickCheck, a university-affiliated lab based in Pennsylvania that offers easy tick testing within 24 to 48 hours of lab receipt. They have a variety of panels to choose from.
Another option is to pre-purchase the Cutter Lyme Disease Tick Test ($30; amazon.com). Don’t wait until the bite happens. The kit has everything you need including a tick remover, alcohol wipe, and a bag to put the tick in, as well as a pre-addressed mailing envelope.
If you choose not to test the tick immediately, you can save it in a sealed container or bag to have it tested later, should symptoms arise.
Get Help From Professionals
If you experience any symptoms of Lyme disease, it’s important to get tested by a qualified medical professional. “It’s important for people to push to get tested if they were in an endemic area. Perhaps get a second opinion or go to a specialist that’s an expert in treating Lyme,” says Ersilia Pompilio, RN.
On her podcast, Nurses and Hypochondriacs, Pompilio interviewed a model that was in the Santa Monica Mountains on a photoshoot and thought she had Lyme. “She was rolling around in leaves and never checked herself, nor showered, but went to bed like that. A week later, she presented with a bullseye rash and symptoms of Lyme including fever, body aches, etc.”
She went to a chiropractor for treatment, which wasn’t a wise idea. When her symptoms became worse, she eventually went to urgent care where she was properly treated.
A bullseye rash is one of the first signs that you have been exposed, but it isn’t the only symptom. “If you don't have the characteristic Lyme disease rash, your doctor might ask about your medical history, including whether you've been outdoors in the summer where Lyme disease is common, and do a physical exam,” Pompilio says.
Your doctor may also want to perform lab tests to identify antibodies to the bacteria that can help confirm or rule out the diagnosis. “These tests are most reliable a few weeks after an infection, after your body has had time to develop antibodies,” she Pompilio says. This includes the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test, which is the most commonly used test to detect Lyme disease. However, it can provide false-positive results, so it is not used as the only test for diagnosis.