How to Remove a Tick the Right Way

Plus, what you should NOT do if you find one on your body.

tick removal; lyme disease
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Lyme disease did not used to be such a newsmaker. Just three decades ago, tick-borne illnesses were only a big issue for people who lived in New England. Today, though, the disease affects people nationwide. Lyme disease—which is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and transmitted to humans through a bit from an infected black-legged or deer tick—affects some 300,000 Americans annually, and has been rising every year.

Given its prevalence, having Lyme disease on your radar is a good thing—but it can also make it easy to freak out about spending time in the great outdoors. No, you shouldn't become a shut-in: Playing in the grass, hiking, and exploring nature trails is good for your health! But you need to do tick checks when you come inside. Here's what to do if one of those blood-sucking critters has latched onto you.

First: What does a tick look like?


The photo at the top of this story is an extreme close-up of a tick. In real life, though, they are tiny—the size of a poppyseed. Earlier this spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tweeted out a photo of ticks hiding on a poppyseed muffin to demonstrate just how little the bugs are. The post sparked outrage online—apparently the photo made poppyseed muffins forever unappetizing for some—but it really is a perfect visual representation of their size.

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Ticks can hide anywhere on your body, so after you've spent time in a wooded, grassy area, it's important to check everywhere, including in between your toes, under your armpits, behind your knees, around your groin area, under your breasts, and behind your ears.

Remove the tick the right way


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Put down the petroleum jelly, matches, nail polish, and other nonsense fixes you might have heard about. The only safe way to get a tick out intact is to use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp it, and pull upward with steady, even pressure.

Save the tick


Yes, it's gross, and you'd rather put it in the garbage, but it's a good idea to keep it around for a few weeks in case you develop symptoms of Lyme or another infection. "Your doctor can send it to a laboratory to be analyzed to see what type of tick it is and what diseases it carried," explains Christina Nelson, MD, MPH, an epidemiologist and pediatrician at the CDC. (Ticks are nasty critters. Here's how you can keep them out of your yard.)

For the time being, just place the tick in a sealed plastic baggie or field container (yes, it will die) and stash it someplace like your garage for a few weeks until it's clear that you haven't developed Lyme disease. If you're really impatient, you can go to the Global Lyme Alliance website to find a facility that will test the tick for you right away. Just keep in mind that this is pricey, which is why Dr. Nelson says it's smarter to wait.

Hit the pause button before getting yourself tested


If you get bitten, you may be tempted to race into your doctor's office and demand screening. But that probably isn't a good idea. The two blood tests used to diagnose Lyme disease have a false positive rate of about 25 percent, according to the American College of Rheumatology, which means you could be diagnosed with Lyme disease when you really don't have it. About 80 percent of the time, the CDC says you'll show a clear sign of Lyme disease—a painless, spreading rash that often grows to look like a bull's eye. If you have this rash and you recently had a tick bite or live/were in an area with Lyme disease, you don't need a test. Your doctor can just start treatment, which is generally two to four weeks of the antibiotic doxycycline, says Dr. Nelson.

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Keep an eye out for Lyme disease symptoms


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About 80 percent of infected people develop a rash within three to 30 days of being bitten, according to the CDC. The rash, known as erythema migrans, usually enlarges and can get clearer as it gets bigger, resulting in a classic bullseye appearance. But not all rashes look like this, so any red rash that's spreading should be checked out, stresses Dr. Nelson.

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About 20 percent of the time, you won't develop a rash but will instead notice other lyme disease symptoms such as a lingering fever, headache, fatigue, and muscle and joint pain. You should also be concerned if you suddenly develop knee swelling that isn't painful and doesn't seem to be related to any activity: It could be an early sign of Lyme disease, according to a 2015 Tufts University study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

Whatever clues you in, early detection of Lyme disease can prevent serious complications—including possible cognitive and psychiatric issues—down the road, so ask your doctor to test you now. Just make sure that he's using the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test, a blood test that detects antibodies to Lyme disease bacteria, followed by the Western blot test to confirm the diagnosis. Don't agree to any other tests that supposedly screen for Lyme disease, like urine cultures or other blood tests, since they aren't FDA-approved and may tell you that you have Lyme when you really don't.

You have Lyme disease—now what?


So let's say you have some symptoms, your doctor uses an approved test, and you do, in fact, have Lyme disease. Don't panic!

A few weeks of antibiotics is usually all you need to get back to normal. If your symptoms stick around after you finish a two- to four-week course of doxycycline, see your doctor. This happens to about 10 to 20 percent of people with Lyme disease, which has led some to claim that they have "chronic Lyme." While it's true that this group may experience symptoms for a year or more, most mainstream health experts say that there's no such thing as chronic Lyme, and that these lingering aches, memory, or sleep problems usually resolve on their own. Or you may have another previously undiagnosed condition such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, says Michael Melia, MD, a Lyme disease expert at Johns Hopkins University.

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A few other don'ts: Don't agree to extended antibiotic therapy, either through pills or an IV. Studies show that it won't help and that it could be dangerous. The CDC recently published a report linking these treatments to an increased risk of developing life- threatening bacterial infections such as septic shock. You should also stay away from so-called alternative treatments marketed for Lyme disease, such as oxygen or chelation therapy. "There's no research that they work, and they may not be safe," says Dr. Nelson.

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