How to avoid and treat tick bites in the wild

Tick-BiteSituation: You’re hiking the central Pennsylvania portion of the Appalachian Trail, having spent the previous night in a tent. During a water break, you notice what appears to be a new mole in the crook of your leg. Oddly, though, this mole has legs. You attempt to brush it off, but it holds fast. Instantly, you recognize this despicable bloodsucking creature for what it is. What should you do?

Solution: As your parents undoubtedly once exclaimed: Don’t pick at it!

First, concentrate on removal of the insect as your priority. Deal with identification and consider potential pathogens later.

Regardless of the type of tick attached to your skin, removal is fairly straightforward. All you really need is a good pair of fine-tipped tweezers.

Using tweezers, grab the head of the tick — the body part attached to you — as close to the skin as possible. Pull straight up and out. Take care not to squeeze the tick’s abdomen, which might be engorged with blood. Once the tick is free, do not kill it. If feasible, place it in a plastic bag or other sealable container so you can identify the tick species later.

Then treat the bite site with antiseptic and cover it with a small bandage.

It’s now time to consider the possibility of disease transmission. There are no reliable statistics on what percentage of any particular tick species carries any particular pathogen, be it Lyme disease or anything else, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. According to the Centers for Disease Control, current research indicates that Lyme disease can be transmitted only by the black-legged tick (or deer tick) in the Northeastern and upper Midwestern U.S., and by the Western black-legged tick along the Pacific coast.

That said, in ticks that do carry Lyme disease, it has been shown to be the most common pathogen, says Dr. Tom Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease. The good news is that the probability of infection by a tick that has been attached for less than 36 hours is low.  “And everyone’s susceptibility is different,” says Mather.

Careful tick checks each evening are crucial. Ticks tend to like folds and creases in the body. Remember to inspect gear and clothing, too.

Once the tick has been removed and you return home with your specimen, take a photo of it. You can upload the picture to tickencounter.org, where the tick will be identified for you within one to three days. If it turns out the tick might harbor Lyme disease, there is still no reason to panic. You should watch for symptoms, which (for Lyme disease) might take four to six days to develop. These include fever, muscle ache, headache and the telltale bull’s-eye rash.

What is certain is that if you have found an engorged tick, identified it as a deer tick and you display symptoms, see a doctor. In most cases, treatment includes a two-week dose of antibiotics. When caught early, odds of a full recovery are good, and chances of developing full-blown chronic Lyme disease are extremely low.

Your best defense is to cover exposed skin as much as possible, and wear insect repellent that contains at least 20 percent DEET. Combined with regular tick checks and prompt removal, these steps will help keep you safe.

8 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this important piece on tick-borne disease prevention. You may want to let people know that ticks can be sent in for testing at labs such as the one that we offer at the Bay Area Lyme Foundation. We will let you know what kind of tick it is and what pathogens the tick may carry.

    Also, the bulls-eye rash only presents in 30-60% of people with a Lyme-infected tickbite, so it’s best to say that and not call it “telltale”.

    If you have further questions, please contact us.

    http://www.bayarealyme.org/lyme-disease-prevention/tick-testing/

  2. **We received this letter to the editor from Jason Hayes, a Scoutmaster from Parker, Colo. Thanks for sharing this excellent advice! **

    In reading the March-April 2016 magazine article titled, “Ticked Off”, I was very surprised to see that tweezers were the magazine’s recommended method of removal. It has been widely accepted at every scout camp that I’ve attended for the past few years that — while this method will work as a last resort — it is neither the safest or easiest method. Utilizing tweezers pretty much guarantees that you will apply some measure of force on the tick, thus causing it to backwash into your blood stream.

    The safer and easier method? Simply cover the tick in toothpaste. It will release in a few minutes as it tries to seek oxygen. Our troop spent last year at Lewis & Clarke scout camp, were we seemed to have set up camp right after ticks hatched — they were literally everywhere. We used this method successfully on multiple occasions.

  3. I have been bitten twice by ticks in the past few months while backpacking with the troop.
    Besides DEET, you should consider clothes treated with Permethrin which actually kills ticks before they bite. Permethrin is used effectively by the U.S. Military. You can spray your clothes, shoes and tents yourself or purchase pre-treated clothes which last thru many washer cycles.
    You can learn more about ticks, repellents, how to remove ticks and more here: http://www.tickencounter.org.

  4. In regards to using toothpaste or any chemicals on a tick, I have read that putting anything on top of it will cause the tick to regurgitate. This regurgitation would spread the disease but that it may be caring.

  5. We always used a secret weapon against ticks. We would make a band of duct tape around our hats and ankles ( sticky side out) It didnt take care of all of them but for the majority it did.

  6. Safety correction: First step in tick removal is put on protective gloves (nitrile or vinyl to avoid latex allergy issues). Without protective gloves you could end up being bitten by the tick – ticks keep moving – and mandatory blood borne disease prevention.
    The removal must include the instruction “steadily” – This means don’t jerk it out, slow, stealy pull (will dimple the skin out and give a goo chance of not leaving mouth parts behind)
    Pull instruction should read: Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk.
    http://www.cdc.gov/ticks/removing_a_tick.html
    Discussion of safe use of permethrin treated clothing as recommended by CDC is important in tick prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/ticks/avoid/on_people.html.
    In NY, the lone star tick is on the increase. We have had scouts come down with lone star borne ehrlichiosis.

  7. At Boundary Waters, I used a length of mono-filament fishing line. I put an overhand knot in the line, then worked it down over the tick to its head next to the skin. I then put slight pulling pressure on the tick until it released, about 5 seconds later. It seemed to cleanly remove the tick.

  8. In regards to the location of Lyme disease, it is in the Southeast as well. My wife picked it up 2 years ago in central Florida while camping. We have never been to the “known” locations, the only place she could have picked it up was Florida. We also know several others who got it from other locations in Florida and Georgia.

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