What You Should Do If You Find a Tick

Coming across one of these disease-spreading bugs might be scary. With a little know-how, it's easy to remove one safely.

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Taking a hike is a great way to de-stress and get some exercise in, but this time of year, you might come home carrying an unwelcome visitor: a tick.

Nope, the little buggers don't go away completely in chilly weather. For example, adult backlegged ticks or "deer ticks," the species associated with Lyme disease, aren't killed by freezing temps; they just wait for the snow to melt. "Once the ground thaws, it only takes adult deer ticks a couple of days to start moving again," explains Thomas Mather, PhD, director of the University of Rhode Island's TickEncounter Resource Center.

The good news is that there are fewer active immature stage nymphs in the fall, says Anne R. Bass, MD, associate attending physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, and a Lyme disease specialist. Nymphs are tiny, about the size of a poppy seed, and thus easier to miss on your body. Tick larvae hatch from eggs, pick up Lyme bacteria from feeding on mice, and then turn into a nymph the following spring, ready to wreak havoc by spreading the disease. About 20% of nymphs and 50% of adult female ticks in the Northeast can be infected with Lyme disease bacteria, depending on the area.

That said, any tick of any size any time of year is scary: You just never know what it might be carrying. Getting rid of a tick is straightforward, but you have to do it right—without freaking out. If you find one, keep calm and follow these rules for safe removal and disposal. Plus, learn what to do once the tick is out.

Don't delay

The longer a tick is attached to your body, the more likely it is to transmit Lyme disease bacteria. By removing the tick as soon as you can, you reduce the chance that you will get infected. A tick must be attached to your body for 24 hours to transmit Lyme disease-causing bacteria.

Disinfect the area before you pull it out

Ticks connect to your skin using a little straw-like structure near its mouth called the hypostome. "If that breaks, germs will spill into the hole in your skin," Mather says. Rubbing alcohol can help disinfect the area in case the bug happens to split apart when you pull it out.

Do not try any folk remedies you may have heard, like covering it in nail polish or using heat from a match. Many tick species today have longer mouth parts that sink deeper into your skin, so burning the bug will do squat to get him to detach, Mather says. "Ticks secrete a substance like cement to hold in place. It's not until they're full of blood that they will secrete another substance to dissolve it and detach."

Use pointy tweezers

The immature nymph ticks can be as small as a poppy seed, and the adult stage ticks aren't much bigger, according to the TickEncounter Resource Center. The same tweezers you use to shape your brows probably aren't the best for pulling one out because they have thick, slanted edges. Instead, you need a pair with fine, pointed edges to really grab hold of the sucker.

Grab close to your skin

Set the point of the tweezers on top of your skin and perpendicular to the tick's body. Gently but firmly grasp the tick's head and mouthparts, and pull upward in a steady motion. (Check out this video for tick removal tips.)

"The salivary glands are where all the germs are, and those are further back in the tick's body," Mather says. So you want to grab as close to their mouth as possible, which will be at the bug's front. Don't twist or turn as you might break the tick in two. Be sure to disinfect the area now, too.

Document the tick

The best place for the tick once it's off your body is a plastic bag. It should die fairly soon once inside, Mather says. But before you seal it off, put the bag against a white background and take a picture, Mather suggests. It might seem terrifying to not immediately throw it out, but keep reading, this step will pay off.

Watch for symptoms

There are at least six different species of ticks, and each is associated with its own particular disease, but you don't need to run to the doctor right away, only if you get a rash or fever.

Finding a tick doesn't guarantee you'll get sick for a variety of reasons: "A tick really has to be feeding for a good 24 to 48 hours before it's likely to transmit anything from its gut into a human," Dr. Bass says. Plus, some ticks may never get infected as larvae, and as Dr. Bass says, "ticks don't take vacations," meaning they stick to their favorite locales. All of this is why human infection rates can vary by region. So it's good to know which ticks (and therefore which illnesses) are most common where you live.

For deer ticks, that's the Northeast and some Midwestern states around the Great Lakes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you get bit in those areas, look for signs of Lyme disease, including a rash at the bite site, fever, and muscle aches, Dr. Bass says. Those can show up 3 to 30 days post-tick bite, according to the CDC.

Lone star ticks, on the other hand, thrive in the Southeast and Mid-Atantic. Infected bugs can pass Ehrlichiosis, which causes headaches, fatigue, and muscle aches. The CDC says those symptoms usually show up within 1 to 2 weeks following a bite.

Then there are dog ticks, which are found all over the U.S. and can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. The disease was identified first in the Rocky Mountains (hence the name), but it's actually more common in the Southeast, according to the Mayo Clinic. Aside from fever and headaches, you might also come down with vomiting and a rash 2 to 14 days after an infected tick bites you, according to the CDC.

Have the tick identified, so you can be treated

This is crucial: if you develop symptoms, take your tick picture to the doctor with you. Knowing the tick species will give her a better idea of treatment options. (Most types aren't hard for a doctor to identify; but if you want you can also submit your tick photo right away to TickEncounter's TickSpotters for identification, so you have it ready if you develop symptoms later. "We're able to get back to everyone who sends a picture within two to three days," Mather says.)

But again, simply knowing where you were when you picked it up can be helpful because particular ticks—and the diseases they may carry—are more prevalent in certain regions. If you start to show symptoms after the tick's out, your doctor should be able to help you piece everything together based on your tick photos, plus where you picked it up.

Lastly, don't panic if you do show symptoms. Most diseases spread by ticks can be treated with antibiotics, especially if you begin treatment shortly after symptoms start.

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