Protect Yourself from Ticks
Ticks walk very lightly on your skin, and use an anesthetic to prevent you from feeling their bites. You can't count on feeling a tick crawling on you or even biting you so it’s important to protect yourself from exposure.
Preventing Tick Exposure
Check yourself for ticks regularly
A daily tick check is your best defense against long-term tick attachment. While yard treatments, clothing treatments, and repellents help you to avoid ticks, none of these approaches are 100% effective at keeping ticks off of you. However, a detailed, daily tick check, or an examination of your whole body, can help you detect a tick that somehow got past other efforts. Even if you did not go into tick habitat, daily tick checks can help you to find a tick that you might have missed the day before but is now larger after feeding.
Daily Tick Check
The goal of a daily tick check is early detection and safe removal of attached ticks. Search all parts of your body for new freckles (with legs) that might be ticks. A hand mirror and a wall-mounted mirror can help you see the backs of your legs, your armpits, behind your ears, and other, more private regions. Ticks prefer to attach in dark and warm areas, so special attention should be given to your groin, bellybutton, under the breasts, and the nape of your neck.
Make daily tick checks part of your routine after you get out of the shower, when you get up in the morning, before you go to bed, or all of the above.
If you find a tick crawling on you, you can quickly kill the tick by placing it in a small jar or bottle with rubbing alcohol. You may wish to keep such a jar close by when spending time outdoors or hiking. It is never a good idea to squish ticks with your fingers, and brushing them off your clothing may not work.
The Internet is full of suggestions on removing ticks. Unfortunately, most of those techniques have never been tested and may do more harm than good. Techniques that agitate ticks could increase the risk of them injecting a pathogen into your blood. Only one method has been officially evaluated for its ability to safely remove ticks.
Ticks have a different system of breathing than humans, and can survive total submersion in water for hours without dying. Swimming or bathing may not even be enough to remove an unattached tick crawling on your body. The best way to kill a tick is to remove it safely with pointy tweezers, then place it in a jar of rubbing alcohol.
Keep ticks visible and off your skin with clothing
If you’ll be in tick habitat (meaning you step off the pavement), take precautions by wearing light-colored, long pants tucked into your socks and a light-colored shirt tucked into pants. These steps make it easier to see ticks crawling on you and more difficult for ticks to get to your skin.
Use repellents. For more on choosing the right repellant, see our post, “Understanding over-the-counter sprays for mosquitoes and ticks” and this Consumer Reports insect repellant buying guide.
Permethrin treated clothing
Information on proper application of permethrin can be found on our blog post "Minimize tick risk while minimizing pesticide risk." Also consider buying pretreated cloths or sending your outdoor socks, pants, and shirts for professional treatments.
Recognize and avoid tick habitat
Tick species differ in where they prefer to hang out, but it is possible to come into contact with a tick anytime you leave the pavement.
You can reduce your chance of encountering blacklegged ticks by avoiding areas with dense vegetation, leaf litter or other debris that you might have to walk through. When walking in a park or hiking, stay in the center of the path and avoid trailside vegetation (although not proven scientifically to reduce your risk of encountering ticks, this practice may help). These tips might not protect you from lone star ticks, which can follow potential hosts across paved surfaced and sandy, hot trails.
Defend Against Hitchhikers
Ticks don’t survive long in most homes because of low humidity, but still — you’re safest if you put your clothes in a clothes dryer and run on high heat for 20 minutes. The tumbling action of the dryer and the high heat kill ticks and similar critters.
The Internet is full of suggestions on how to remove a tick. Unfortunately, most of those techniques have never been tested and may do more harm than good. Techniques that agitate ticks could increase the risk of them injecting a pathogen into your blood. Only one method has been officially evaluated for its ability to safely remove ticks—using sharp tweezers, grabbing a tick as close to the skin as possible and gently pulling up.
Removing ticks safely
- Fine-tipped tweezers should be placed on the skin, with the narrowest part used to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible. If tweezers are not fine enough, they may squeeze contents of the tick abdomen into your body, which you want to avoid.
- Once the mouthparts are between the two prongs of the tweezers, pull away from the skin with steady, even pressure. An attached tick will not come out easily, but will pull free with steady pressure. Do not jerk or twist the tick.
- After you have removed the tick, clean the bite site with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water. Anyone involved in the tick removal should clean their hands and the tweezers in the same manner.
- Save the tick for potential testing
What if the whole tick doesn’t come out?
The ‘head’ of the tick, or the part that is sometimes left inside skin, is actually the tick mouthparts. Based on our current understanding of tick-borne disease, the mouthparts alone cannot lead to transmission of the tick-associated pathogens. While effort should be made to keep the tick intact and remove the mouthparts with the rest of the tick, your body will heal and eventually force out the mouthparts if they accidentally break off. In either case, the site should be cleaned with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water to prevent secondary infection.
Once the tick has been removed, place it in a zippered plastic bag or jar of alcohol and label with the date, the species, if the tick was attached (versus walking on your skin), and if the tick had fed and was partially engorged, which might be useful information for a physician if symptoms arise.
Tick testing services are available from universities and private entities to determine if the tick is carrying any pathogens (for example: the Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell University). Just because a tick is carrying a pathogen doesn’t mean it was transferred to you.
It is more important to be mindful of symptoms that may be associated with tick-borne disease and to speak with your physician.