How to Do a Tick Check
Tick activity spikes each spring and again in the fall. This time of year, ticks are looking for their last meal before they lay eggs in the winter. Tick bites can cause Lyme disease and anaplasmosis, among other tick-borne diseases, which come with debilitating symptoms 3 – 30 days after the bite. So, it is important to prevent tick bites by wearing protective clothing, using repellant, and avoiding the places ticks live.
Ticks must be attached to a host for some time, 30 minutes – 48 hours, depending on the virus, before they transmit infection, so one helpful way to avoid illness is to remove ticks quickly. That’s where the tick check comes in. The tick check has three steps.
Step 1: Check outside Before coming inside, take a look at your clothes and gear. It is quite easy to see a tick crawling up your pant leg, especially in fall, when ticks are at their largest. See notes on disposal below.
Step 2: Shed your clothes. If you can, shed your clothes as soon as you come inside. Placing clothes in the dryer on high for 10 minutes will kill ticks you didn’t see. If you are washing your clothes, hot water is recommended. Cold and medium-temperature water will not kill ticks. Laundering right away will prevent the tick from falling off in the house and catching up with you or a family member later.
Step 3: Check your body and those of small children and pets after being outdoors.
- Check your entire body carefully.
- Use a mirror to look at hard-to-see places, including under your arms, behind your ears, around your waist, and between your legs.
- Showering is a good way to remove ticks that may be crawling on you in hard to see places, like your back and in your hair.
- Check pets, especially between the pads of their feet. Ticks may feed on your pet or hitch a ride to get to you.
- If you’re going in and out of the house many times during the day, to a thorough tick check before bed.
Remove any ticks you see. If a tick has already bitten you, grip the tick as close to the skin as possible with a pair of tweezers. Pull straight up without twisting. The tick's mouthparts may remain in the skin. Apply alcohol or antibiotic ointment to the bite location.
Dispose of the live tick. The best way to kill ticks is by putting them in a sealed container of rubbing alcohol. You can also place them in a sealed bag/container or enclose them tightly in tape. These methods will suffocate the tick. Alternatively, you could flush ticks down the toilet. Watch to be sure that the tick is actually flushed. Never crush a tick with your fingers. If the tick is infected, the infection could enter your body through a break in the skin.
Watch for symptoms. Whether you find a tick a long time after it has bitten you, you remove the tick quickly, or you don’t know that you’ve been bitten, it is wise to know the symptoms of tick-borne illness and to take action when they arise. (Many people are diagnosed with tick-borne illness without having been aware that they were bitten.) The most common symptoms include fever and chills, aches and pains, and a rash.
Note that tick-borne illnesses share some symptoms in common with both the flu and COVID-19. If you get a fever, your healthcare provider may recommend testing for all three types of disease to see which one you have, if any. Especially for tick-borne diseases, taking the recommended treatment early is the best way to avoid long-term health effects.
A solid tick-check routine, along with preventive measures, is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and still prevent illnesses caused by ticks.
Donna Barron, RN, is the infection preventionist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.