How to Remove a Tick the Right Way

It’s the perfect summer day. You’re out in nature, breathing in fresh air and taking in all the sights and sounds — of course ticks are the last thing on your mind at that point. But you get home, unpack and find a pesky little insect attached to your skin. Don’t panic, because we’ve got you covered, literally.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that since 2004, nine new germs spread by bites from infected mosquitoes and ticks have been discovered or introduced into the United States. This is in large part because ticks feed off of warm-blooded animals, and their two favorite hosts, deer and mice, have grown in population. 

But the good news for humans is that a tick has to be attached for at least 36 to 48 hours before you are at risk for contracting an illness, says Laura Sigman, MD and pediatrician with Alpha Medical. “The risk of getting a tick-borne disease also depends on the area of the country and type of tick. In most places, only a small percentage of ticks carry diseases that can affect humans.”

What’s the best way to remove a tick?

It might feel gross, but the best thing to do is get right in there and pull the tick out with clean tweezers. Mark Loafman, family physician and system chair for Family and Community Medicine at Cook County Health says to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and then pull slow and steady away from the skin. He advises to use caution and be sure all the mouthparts of the tick are removed, and if they’re still there, use tweezers to remove anything left behind. 

And if you’re thinking a treatment that comes from folklore will work, think again. “Avoid old home remedies like applying heat, nail polish or Vaseline, which can actually increase the risk of infection,” Dr. Loafman says. “After removal, wash hands and the bite area aggressively with soap and water, no need for alcohol or other cleansers.”

What should you do once you’ve removed a tick?

To prevent the tick from biting someone else, it is best to flush it down the toilet once removed from the skin, says Dr. Loafman.

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If you’re worried the tick might be carrying a disease, you can capture a photo of the tick on your smartphone. From there you can visit the CDC’s tick ID page which has photos to help identify all of the ticks known in the United States, with guidance on any health risks they might carry.  

But if you’re still concerned, Dr. Sigman says you can always save the tick in a small plastic bag and bring it to your doctor or local health department. “They can help identify the tick and determine whether you or your child needs to be treated to prevent Lyme disease,” she says. 

What happens if you don’t remove a tick?

Ticks will generally stay attached to the human body for a few days, feeding on the host’s blood supply before falling off and finding their way to another host. During the time of attachment they will likely increase in size — the longer a tick is attached, the higher the risk it has of transmitting disease.

Some species of ticks in certain parts of the country can transmit illnesses like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and southern-tick associated rash illness, according to the CDC. While not every tick carries these, it is best to remove a tick as soon as you find it and not wait for it to fall off. 

“The life cycle for ticks includes up to four different stages spanning across as many as three years, and a blood meal is required for the tick to complete each stage of this life cycle,” says Dr. Loafman. “Most ticks die without completing all four stages.”

What are some ways to prevent tick bites?

Tick exposure can occur year-round, but they are most active between April and September, according to the CDC. So you should be cautious anytime you’re outside, but especially in the summer months. 

Staying on trails and out of areas with large vegetation can reduce your risk, since ticks live in grassy and brushy wooded areas and on animals. If you or your child comes into contact with these, it’s best to do a quick inspection. This includes dark, warm areas with skin folds such as in between toes and fingers, armpits, the groin, the scalp, and behind the ears. This should be done as soon as possible after being outside.  

“High heat for 10 minutes will destroy ticks,” says Dr. Loafman. “So running items in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes, longer if the items are damp, is effective.”

And if you anticipate potential exposure, wear clothing that covers most of the body. This includes long sleeves, long pants tucked into socks, closed shoes rather than sandals, and a hat. And you can pretreat clothing, boots and gear with tick repellent spray containing 0.5% permethrin. This will stay effective in keeping ticks away for the entire season, even after washing the items.

“Be sure to wash off areas where insect repellant was applied with soap and water after returning indoors, and avoid getting it in the mouth, nose and eyes,” says Dr. Sigman. “Products containing permethrin can repel ticks from clothing but should not be used on skin.”

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