How to safely remove a tick as population increases

Pennsylvania has the highest incidence of Lyme disease in the United States, according to 2015 CDC data. Due to a mild winter, experts predict an increase in occurrences this year, particularly from an expected rise in the deer tick population, which spreads Lyme disease.

But, there’s no reason to panic. Preventive steps along with knowledge of how to safely remove a tick can protect you from Lyme disease.

Deer ticks typically live in wooded or overgrown grassy areas, so prepare in the following manner for visits to these places:

Clothing Barrier: Cover your body with a hat, long sleeves, pants, and long socks. Opt for light colors — to expose a hitch-hiking tick. For frequent trips to tick-populated environments, purchase clothing treated with permethrin, a substance that kills deer ticks on contact, which is available at sporting goods stores.

Repellent: Use insect repellent that contains 20-percent DEET on your clothing and your skin. These substances have been studied by the EPA and deemed safe for human use. There are also a few published studies that discuss the effectiveness of natural plant oils from lavender, peppermint, lemongrass, thyme and garlic against deer ticks. 

Check and Double Check: After an outing, check your clothing and skin for ticks from top to bottom. The process takes a couple minutes and could potentially prevent the illness or the need for treatment. Enlist help if you can. You’re looking for a tiny insect, about the size of a pin-head or small mole. Deer ticks are flat and tear-shaped, with a head that’s separate from its body and six (nymph) to eight (adult) legs. It will be seeking the warmest parts of your body, such as the scalp, armpits, and groin.

Starting at the top:

• Comb through the hair and also lift strands to look behind the ears, along the scalp line,and then along the part.

• Examine the neck, shoulders and arms. Raise the arms and carefully examine the area along the armpits.

• Check the abdomen and back as well as the buttocks and groin areas.

• Carefully scan legs, ankles and toes.

If you find a tick, do not panic. It typically takes up to 36 hours for a tick to infect a person with Lyme disease.

Your goal while you remove a tick is to keep it intact. Lyme disease rests within the tick, so you do not want to break or crush it. If you are outdoors and the tick is on your body without attaching itself to your skin, you can simply brush it off. However, do not brush a tick off when you are indoors, because it could later attach itself to another person or pet.

If the tick is attaching itself, you will need the following items:

• Gloves, if available — these are to protect from any fluids released by the tick during removal. Without gloves, continue, but be sure to thoroughly wash your hands.

• Tweezers — use these to grab the tick at the point closest to the surface of the skin, and gently pull upward with steady even pressure. Be careful not to twist or break off the tick’s head as it could continue to burrow under the skin and release the toxin that causes Lyme disease.

• Rubbing alcohol, tape, and a plastic bag — soak the tick in rubbing alcohol, then either flush it down the toilet or wrap it in tape and place it in a plastic bag for disposal. Never crush a tick. For instance where the tick may have been on the body for 36 hours or longer, keep it sealed in the bag, call your health care provider’s office, and bring it with you to the appointment.

• Soap and water — immediately clean the area where the tick was found, along with the hands that helped with its removal, particularly if ungloved, with soap and water. You may also use iodine or rubbing alcohol. Also, treat the tweezers with rubbing alcohol before putting them away.

Never use a flame, special oils, or home remedies to assist with tick removal. The procedure above is the fastest and most effective.

Whaley is a certified nurse practitioner with infectious diseases at UPMC Susquehanna.