Don't Make These Common Mistakes When Checking for Ticks

checking for ticks
Photo Illustration by Lecia Landis for Verywell Health; Getty Images.

Key Takeaways

  • Preventing tick bites is key to preventing Lyme disease.
  • Taking a shower within two hours of being outside can help wash off any ticks that are not attached.
  • Don't forget to look in your hair, behind your ears, in your belly button, and behind your knees.

Tick season is here, which means it’s time to brush up on your Lyme disease-prevention strategies before heading out for a summer hike or camping trip.

More than 450,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated annually for Lyme disease, which is spread through the bite of an infected tick. Lyme disease cases have been increasing in the United States partly because of climate change, which has allowed ticks to survive in more areas.

Antibiotics are available to treat Lyme disease. But if left untreated, Lyme disease can cause fever, rash, headache, nerve pain, heart palpitations, or partial facial paralysis.

“The ticks feed on rodents and the bacteria can be in the blood and taken up by the tick,” said Mollie W. Jewett, PhD, an associate professor and the division head of immunity and pathogenesis at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine.

Ticks go through four life stages—egg, larva, nymph, and adult—and must eat a “blood meal” at every stage after hatching in order to live. They can attach to humans, dogs, or other hosts and start slowly sucking blood. The feedings can last for multiple days, and during the process, tick saliva can transfer the disease-causing bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi.

The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to protect yourself from tick bites, but if you do spot a tick on your skin, the bacteria don't pass from an infected tick to the host immediately.

“If you had a tick on your body for less than 24 hours, it probably did not transmit Lyme," said Michael Zimring, MD, director of The Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD.

While noticing a tick on your body might be alarming, it doesn’t always mean you've been infected with Lyme disease. In order to reduce your chances of getting infected, it's important to remove the tick right away. Here are some common mistakes to avoid when checking for and removing ticks, according to experts.

Not Taking Proper Tick Precautions in the First Place

Ticks thrive in grassy and wooded areas. Although they don't jump or fly, they can crawl on you when you're hiking or working in the yard. It's best to hike in the center of a trail instead of forging a path through leafy or grassy spots.

"Protecting yourself from the ticks to begin with is really the number one," Jewett said. If you plan to hike in an area with a high tick population, she recommends wearing long pants tucked into socks, closed-toe shoes, and a hat.

Applying insect repellent with DEET, picaridin, or lemon eucalyptus oil is a good idea. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends using a product with 0.5% permethrin to spray on clothes, boots, and camping gear.

Ticks need a moist environment to survive so people who live in a high-tick area may want to throw their clothes in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes after spending time outside.

"If you have ticks on your clothes, for the most part, that should take care of them," Jewett said.

The CDC also recommends taking a shower within two hours of being outside because this can help wash off any ticks that are not attached.

Forgetting to Check Hard-to-See Body Areas

You should do a full-body tick check even if you've already put your clothes in the dryer and taken a shower. It's not always easy to spot a tick on your skin. Adult ticks are about the size of a sesame seed, while nymphs are even smaller and may look like a poppy seed.

Jewett said some people might mistake a tick for a freckle, so it is important to conduct a thorough check over your entire body after going outside in tick-infested areas.

You may need to ask a loved one for help or you can use a mirror to investigate those hard-to-see places. Don't forget to look in your hair, behind your ears, in your belly button, and behind your knees.

"Dogs and cats can bring ticks in quite often," she said. So make sure to check your pets, too.

Removing a Tick Before Documenting the Bite

Even if you wear the right anti-tick outfit and use bug spray, you still might find a tick on your body.

"If you find a tick on yourself, I always tell people to 'go mark the calendar'," Jewett said.

It may be easier said than done, but if you can also take a picture of the tick on your body, this might help researchers and doctors understand how long the insect had been feeding, she added.

These could be useful for a diagnosis, especially since it can take several weeks before most Lyme disease tests can detect an infection.

"The trick with Lyme disease is that the sooner a person that has Lyme disease can actually get the appropriate treatment, the better in terms of the long-term outcomes for them," Jewett said.

She's also working on developing a new test that would be able to detect the Borrelia bacteria for a faster diagnosis.

Crushing the Tick After Removal

If you're spending time outdoors, prepare a "tick first-aid prevention kit" complete with insect repellent, tweezers, and a plastic sealable bag or vial for tick removal, said Jean I. Tsao, PhD, an associate professor in the departments of fisheries & wildlife and large animal clinical sciences at Michigan State University.

Use fine-tipped tweezers to get close to the skin, grip the tick, and pull upwards in a steady motion. Be careful not to twist: you don't want to accidentally leave the head or mouth attached to the skin. Wash your hands and clean the bite site with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.

"One mistake that I do think people make—based on what I've heard talking with the public—is not keeping the tick afterward so that they can get an identification on the species and life stage," Tsao told Verywell.

Instead of crushing the tick, place it in a plastic sealable bag to throw out, or consider bringing it to your healthcare provider to discuss if you need it identified.

Not Monitoring Symptoms After Getting a Tick Bite

Consider talking to a healthcare provider after getting bit by a tick and monitor any symptoms. Zimring said it usually takes an average of seven days before someone gets sick after a tick bite, but that timeline could range from three to 30 days.

People may develop flu-like symptoms, headache, fatigue, or a rash after a tick bite, according to Zimring. However, not everyone will develop a bullseye rash even though this is often associated with Lyme disease.

"It's possible to have Lyme without a rash," he said. "60% of the people have the rash, but you could be on the other 40%."

What This Means For You

Take precautions to protect yourself from tick bites if you're spending time in an outdoor area with a high tick population. If you do spot a tick on your skin, try to stay calm and document it before removing the tick—in case you need to show a provider for diagnosis and treatment.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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