Tick Bites: Prevention and Safe Removal

As spring and summer approach and we spend more time outside, we also risk encountering ticks. Unfortunately, ticks aren’t just biting insects (technically, they don’t bite -they sting). But they’re also notorious vectors for illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. 

Understanding how to prevent tick bites is crucial for staying safe during outdoor adventures. Here’s how to steer clear of tick bites and enjoy the great outdoors worry-free.

Are Tick Bites Dangerous?

In a word, yes. At least, they certainly can be! Many of us are aware of the seriousness and widespread epidemic of Lyme disease, which is now more common than breast cancer. While it is possible to contract Lyme in other ways, black-legged ticks are overwhelmingly responsible. Lyme disease comes from spirochete (spiral-shaped) bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi.

Other less common tick-borne infections include spotted fever rickettsiosis (including Rocky Mountain spotted fever), anaplasmosis, and babesiosis. There’s also ehrlichiosis, Colorado tick fever, and tularemia. It’s even possible to get tick-borne encephalitis, aka, brain inflammation.

Many of these infections cause the same symptoms as Lyme disease. Although these are less common than Lyme, they’re responsible for several thousand cases of tick-related illness in the United States each year.

Lyme disease can cause a wide variety of symptoms. Some people develop a persistent fever, rashes, or headaches. Others have chronic joint pain and swelling that may be misdiagnosed. Those who are especially sensitive may have allergic reactions to the bacteria. Some may even develop severe or debilitating neurological disorders. 

Lyme disease is an especially troubling condition because it can be difficult to diagnose. Dr. Jay Davidson explains more in this podcast.

Where Are Ticks a Problem?

Cases of tick-borne disease tend to cluster around the northeastern United States. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least one case of Lyme disease has occurred in every state. Check out this map of cases reported by the CDC from 1990 through 2021.

Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maine have the highest incidence rate of Lyme cases. Data from 2022 shows an average of about 200 cases per 100,000 persons occurred in those three states. Midwestern states are also experiencing increased cases in recent years. 

But Lyme isn’t limited to the Northeast and the Midwest. As of 2015, almost half the counties in the United States reported the presence of black-legged ticks. The CDC continues to monitor the upward trend.

Lyme disease is continuing to spread to other states, so be proactive and do what you can to reduce your chances of tick bites. The spring and summer are the highest risk, as ticks are busy hatching and looking for their next meal. 

How to Check for Ticks

Engorged ticks are easy to spot, but some can be as small as a pinhead. They like to hide in warm, moist, covered areas of the body. 

First, shower off to remove any unattached ticks. Then, carefully inspect for ticks by thoroughly examining the hair and back of the neck, using your fingertips. Here are some other places ticks like to hide out:

  • Behind arms
  • Behind the knees
  • In or around the ears
  • Belly button
  • Between the legs
  • Around the waist

Rather than play naturalist, I’ll point you to the best tick identification tool I’ve found. This handy chart featuring images of ticks allows you to sort by region, type, maturity stages, feeding stages, and even by the diseases various types of ticks may transmit. The deer tick (black-legged tick) is the main one to look out for, but it’s not the only one that causes problems.

What to Do If You Find a Tick

I’ll never forget the day I leaned in to check out a dark spot on my baby’s head, only to find a TICK feasting on her scalp. I wish I could say I remained composed and knew exactly what to do, but that wasn’t the case at all…

After a few more children, I still don’t like dealing with ticks, but I’ve learned what to do when I encounter one. If you’re a seasoned parent or have pets, you’ve likely faced this situation before. However, if you haven’t, here’s what to do:

Check to see if the tick is attached. If you spot a small, flat tick crawling on your clothes, skin, or floor, it’s a good sign, as it likely hasn’t bitten anyone or fed recently. However, if you encounter a large tick with a swollen, round body, it’s more concerning as it may have already fed and detached from a pet or person in the home.

If unattached, don’t try to kill it. If the tick is unattached, resist the urge to crush, burn, or destroy it. (It’s hard, I know.) Don’t touch the tick with your bare hands. Instead, use tweezers or a piece of tape to grab it. Put the tick in a sealed plastic bag or small jar in the freezer. This both kills the tick and preserves it for identification if symptoms of Lyme disease develop.

If attached, here’s what to do (and not to do): 

How NOT to Remove a Tick

There are plenty of home remedy solutions for tick removal, but these may do more harm than good. Burning the tick, using essential oils, or greasing it with petroleum jelly may sound like good ideas. However, these techniques can irritate the tick, making things worse.

I don’t care about a tick’s feelings, but if the tick is irritated, it can vomit the contents of its stomach (pathogens included!) into the skin. That’s exactly what we don’t want to happen!

For years, the proper tick removal code has been to use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers and pull it straight out. While this can work, it can also leave the tick’s head or mouth-parts embedded in the skin. 

(Sidenote: I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve felt an invisible tick crawling on me while writing this post!)

What to Do Instead: Safe Tick Removal 

Instead, use a tick-removal device like this one. It resembles a spork. You insert it between the tick and the skin, then twist gently until the tick releases. I keep one on my keychain during tick season.

Unlike the tweezer method, this device is much more likely to result in a clean removal. The prongs on either side help ensure the tick mouth doesn’t bend too far to the side and snap off while rotating.

If you don’t have a tick removal tool, use tweezers, but be sure to grab the tick as close to the head/mouth as possible.

How to Remove a Tick

  1. First, try to ignore the super-mom adrenaline pumping through your body!
  2. Approach the tick from the side with a tick device or tweezers.
  3. Slide the notched tick removal device underneath the base of the tick head and the skin. If using tweezers, apply them firmly as close to the mouth/skin as possible.
  4. With a firm, slight lifting motion, gently spin the tick remover until the tick detaches itself. If using tweezers, pull up firmly but continuously. Don’t jerk or twist.
  5. Put the tick in a sealed bag, mark it with the date, and put it in the freezer. This kills it and saves it for identification if Lyme symptoms come up.
  6.  Make sure that there are no tick parts left embedded in the skin. If there are, pulling it out with tweezers like a splinter or using a drawing salve can be helpful.
  7.  Wash the bite area with soap and water and apply an antimicrobial, like rubbing alcohol, to the area. Diluted lavender or this germ-fighting essential oil blend are also good options.

How/Where to Send a Tick For Testing

Testing for tick-borne illness in humans is frequently inaccurate. The ELISA test typically run by healthcare providers in local clinics often comes back negative when other tests show an infection. In fact, it may miss over half of all Lyme cases. A Western Blot test may be more accurate, but only when interpreted by different standards than the CDC’s. 

One of the most trusted laboratories for Lyme disease testing is Igenex.. In addition to Lyme, they also screen for other tick-borne illnesses. One example is ehrlichiosis, which targets white blood cells. Another is babesiosis, which affects red blood cells. They also test for infections like anaplasmosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. These co-infections can manifest symptoms similar to Lyme disease. 

For a more budget-friendly alternative, there’s Vibrant Wellness. While comparable to Igenex, it comes at a lower cost. Vibrant Wellness offers comprehensive Lyme panels. They can detect different borrelia species as well as co-infections common with Lyme disease. These companies allow patients to request a home test or send the tick (dead or alive) to have it tested for infections. 

Chances are likely that all will be well if the infection is caught early and handled properly. But that said, here’s what to look for: 

Symptoms of Tick-Borne Illness

According to the CDC, possible symptoms of a tick-borne infection are:

  • A relapsing fever and chills (flu-like symptoms)
  • Achy joints or muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • A large circular rash that looks like a bullseye around the bite site (called erythema migrans)

The bullseye rash doesn’t always occur, so it’s critical to check for other symptoms. Children will sometimes develop tick paralysis, which causes temporary numbness and tingling. For a complete list of symptoms, see the CDC’s tick page

Dr. Jay Davidson adds that a sore sternum (the bone over the breast) may be another sign of contracting Lyme.

If you suspect tick-related illness, consult with a doctor right away, as early intervention may help. Dr. Davidson recommends taking Ledum palustre, a homeopathic remedy, as a natural first aid. Another option is to apply andrographis tincture on the fresh bite to help prevent disease transmission throughout the body. 

Tick Prevention Is the Best Cure (for Now)

You can take some preventative measures to avoid ticks in the first place, reducing your risk of tick- and other insect bites. The options for battling ticks aren’t perfect (especially if you prefer to avoid chemicals, as I do), and I can only hope we have more options for controlling the Lyme outbreak on the horizon. 

Until then, here are some of the steps we can take today to let our kids go adventuring without worry:

1. Tick-Proof Your Yard

It’s probably no surprise that I don’t recommend professional chemical sprays for the yard, even to reduce ticks. While many companies tout this as “safe,” if it kills ticks, it probably isn’t good for your pets or kids, let alone the environment and other harmless bugs in your yard.

There are quite a few logical (and natural) steps to discourage ticks:

  • Keep the grass short. Ticks are commonly found in lawns, particularly in areas with tall grass, dense vegetation, and leaf litter. Keep your lawn well-maintained by mowing regularly and removing tall grass, brush, and leaf litter.
  • Prune dense landscaping. Trim back overhanging branches and prune shrubs to allow more sunlight to reach the ground. Ticks prefer shaded, humid environments, so increasing sunlight exposure can make the lawn less hospitable for them.
  • Mulch with cedar chips. Studies show ticks and cedar oil don’t mix. Since ticks crawl and don’t fly, try mulching the perimeter of your yard with cedar chips or between your yard and grassy areas to discourage them from crossing.
  • Try adding nematodes. Nematodes are microscopic worms that are natural tick predators. You can buy them online or at garden stores and introduce them into your yard, garden, or surrounding wooded areas while watering. Don’t worry — They’re non-toxic and don’t harm beneficial insects like ladybugs. But they can be a big help in controlling tick populations.
  • Consider Tick Tubes: Tick tubes are cardboard cylinders filled with treated cotton that mice bring back to their nests. The treated cotton kills ticks on the mice, reducing the likelihood of ticks attaching to humans.
  • Get backyard chickens! Besides providing fresh eggs, they eat ticks! Chickens are natural foragers and will peck at insects they encounter, including ticks. They can help reduce ticks in the areas surrounding your house.

2. Use Natural Bug Repellent

Although the EWG (Environmental Working Group) concludes DEET is a reasonably safe option at lower concentrations, it’s not recommended for pregnant women or children under six months. Many studies also point to possible side effects from using DEET and other insect repellents like permethrin, including dizziness, headaches, and even seizures.

While I take ticks and the threat of Lyme disease seriously, I favor using natural bug repellents, especially since studies show essential oils like citronella can be as effective as DEET. My natural bug spray recipe uses several essential oils shown in studies to repel ticks: geranium, citronella, and lemon eucalyptus.

Natural bug repellent is especially useful (and effective) for repelling those tiny nymph ticks you cannot see in a tick check. After all, it’s better to be distasteful to ticks so you don’t get bitten in the first place!

Taking certain herbs as a supplement may help from the inside out. Astragalus is an herb from Traditional Chinese Medicine that may help repel ticks while supporting the immune system. Lyme expert Stephen Buhner recommends adults take 1,000 mg of Astragalus daily to ward off ticks.

3. Check for Ticks Daily

I know it’s not fun, but, with practice, it becomes a habit. Put a full-length mirror in the bathroom, and/or teach kids to check themselves and each other. The black-legged tick nymph most often transmits Lyme disease, and it’s only about the size of a poppy seed. This is the most comprehensive list I’ve found for how to conduct a complete tick check.

I know it’s not easy to get kids to stop what they’re doing and sit still, so we build it into the routine before lunch, dinner, and bedtime, along with the wash hands/brush teeth step. This site has a free activity e-book for teaching young children how to check for ticks.

4. Practice Good Hiking Hygiene

Ticks love wooded trails, tall grassy fields, and areas with dense brush.

But I refuse to let ticks spoil our love for hiking, camping, and just being outdoors in the summer. Be smart when hiking and follow these tips for avoiding ticks:

  • Wear protective clothing: Wear long-sleeved shirts when hiking in a high-tick area and tuck pants into socks. This practice can help prevent ticks from crawling onto exposed skin. Light-colored clothing also helps make ticks more visible.
  • Choose high boots rather than athletic shoes: Again, you’ll want to avoid easily accessible skin. 
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat: Wide-brimmed hats can keep ticks from crawling from tall brush onto the back of your neck or hair.
  • Consider permethrin clothing: I don’t love the idea of using chemicals, but I love the idea of Lyme disease even less! Permethrin is a synthetic version of a natural insecticide found in chrysanthemum flowers. It kills ticks on contact and may be worth considering for those adventuring in high-risk areas.
  • Stay on the trails: Ticks love the brush and tall grass. They’re just waiting for you to venture off into the rugged terrain!
  • Do an after-hike tick check: Check for ticks before getting in the car after a hike, or use a sticky lint roller on clothes to catch tiny ticks.
  • Head to the laundry room! Remove hiking clothes and put them immediately in the dryer for 10 minutes on high heat to kill ticks.
  • Finish up with a good soak: Bathe or shower as soon as possible after hiking. Be sure to do so within 2 hours of coming inside.

It might seem like a strange family activity, but we keep robes in the mudroom! That way, we can strip off after hiking, throw everything in the dryer, and head right for the showers.

5. Protect Pets

Pets are also susceptible to tick-borne diseases, and it’s often more challenging to locate ticks because of all that fur. Check dogs and cats thoroughly before allowing them in the house. You can also try applying a few drops of geranium essential oil around a dog’s collar but don’t use this method (or any essential oils) on cats.

Final Thoughts

While these methods can help reduce your risk of tick bites, it’s still important to do regular tick checks, especially during peak tick season (May through August). If you find a tick attached to your skin, remove it right away –the right way– to reduce your risk of tick-borne diseases. If you do develop symptoms, like rash, fever, or muscle aches, seek medical attention immediately.

Have you ever had a tick bite? What did you do? Do you have other ideas to prevent them?

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