How To Remove a Tick From Your Skin

An entomologist's step-by-step guide for what to do—and how much you should worry—when it comes to tick-borne illnesses.

Warm weather can invite you to spend more time outdoors, but it can also increase your risk of getting bitten by ticks. These small insects can carry a variety of diseases ranging from Lyme disease to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, depending on the tick species.

When a tick bites into your skin and begins feeding, the insects swell up and can transmit bacteria, viruses, or parasites. For some illnesses, like Lyme disease, it takes 24 to 36 hours for the harmful bacterium to be passed to the host. For others, like the much less common but very dangerous Powassan virus, transmission can happen in as little as 15 minutes.

It is important to remove ticks as early as possible to avoid transmission. Experts agree that people should be vigilant in checking themselves and their pets for ticks and should know what to do if they find one. To learn more about tick removal, Health spoke with Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, PhD, an entomologist at Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Here's her advice on how to remove a tick with a pair of tweezers.

How To Remove a Tick

1. Gather Your Materials

As soon as you discover a tick that's attached itself to your skin, grab a pair of fine-tipped tweezers, a cotton ball, and some rubbing alcohol.

"We say 'fine-tipped' because tweezers with flat edges, like the ones used for eyebrows, are not as good," Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann said. "That flat edge can squish the tick, and if you squash the abdomen, you could actually squeeze germs into your blood."

2. Pull the Tick Off With Even Pressure

Use the tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible, and simply pull it straight out with even pressure; don't yank or twist. Flush the tick down the toilet or seal it in a plastic bag, Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann advised. If you remove a tick soon after it attaches, chances are low that you'll be infected with anything, since it usually takes a few hours for them to begin feeding.

3. Treating Your Bite

Treat the bite with rubbing alcohol, and keep an eye on it for several weeks to make sure you don't develop a bulls-eye rash, which could indicate Lyme disease. Pay attention to your overall health, as well.

If part of the tick stays in your skin after you pull it out with tweezers, try not to worry too much about it. "Treat it with alcohol to make sure it's sterile, but mouth parts themselves will not cause infection," Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann said, "and your skin will work them out just like it does a splinter."

4. Monitoring Symptoms

Immediate tick bite symptoms include a small red spot at the bite area, minor swelling, and itchiness. These symptoms are normal. However, contact a healthcare provider if you develop a fever, a rash bigger than a centimeter, a halo-shaped rash around the bite area, flu-like symptoms, or signs of infection.

Also, remember that "not everyone gets a rash with Lyme disease, and the other diseases don't involve rashes at all." Ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, and babesiosis can also be transmitted by ticks and mistaken for the flu or a common cold. "If you begin to develop flu-like symptoms at any point, and flu is not going around at that time, you may want to get tested for tick-borne illnesses," Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann said.

Some people consider testing ticks they have removed, but this is not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you've been infected, you would likely notice symptoms before you got any test results back. Furthermore, even if a tick tests positive for a disease, that does not necessarily mean you were infected with it, Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann said.

5. Staying Prepared

Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann recommended creating a tick-removal kit to keep on hand during tick season. "Ours includes a set of fine-point tweezers, rubbing alcohol, a magnifying glass—because ticks are really tiny, smaller than you'd expect—and a small mirror, for checking hard-to-see places, like behind your ears." A tick identification card may also be helpful so you know what bit you.

What Not To Do

"There are a lot of old remedies that grandmothers talk about, like using Vaseline or lighting a match or using essential oils," Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann said. But trying to suffocate or heat up a tick can actually cause it to burrow deeper into the skin. "We don't recommend any of those things."

Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann also did not recommend buying fancy tick-removal tools, at least not for use on humans. "There's a spoon-like device from Ticked Off that can be good for animals because their fur can make it difficult to remove ticks with tweezers. But for humans, tweezers are the simplest, best way."

Don't assume you're safe just because you're not in the forest or deep grass. "Not everyone realizes that a park or a backyard can be a tick habitat," Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann said. "And if you're in the woods, it's usually the edge of the woods where you'll find the most ticks, not deep in the middle."

At the same time, don't be scared to spend time outside this summer. "I would never advocate for not enjoying the outdoors," Dr. Gangloff-Kaufmann said. "If you take precautions, like wearing tick repellant and doing a tick check at least once a day, you can still have a great time and you won't have to worry so much."

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