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It’s no wonder people are concerned when they find a tick embedded in their skin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of tick-borne illnesses being reported has more than doubled since 2004, with Lyme disease being the most prevalent. The number of cases of Lyme reported in 2016 totaled 36,429, but their experts estimate actual numbers were closer to 300,000. There have also been new diseases reported that ticks carry, from bacteria that cause life-threatening allergic reactions to beef, to a virus that cause deadly inflammation in the brain.
When you find a tick attached to yourself or a loved one, take the natural approach to remove the tick safely and head those diseases off at the pass.
There are several urban myths about how to remove a tick. These actually do more harm than good:
All of these techniques stress the tick or put pressure on its body, which results in it regurgitating its contents into you, putting you at high risk for any diseases it’s carrying.
The goal of safe tick removal is to keep the entire tick intact without causing stress. The only safe tools to use are a pair of fine-toothed tweezers or a tick-removing hook. If the tick is in a hair-covered area, you can wet the surrounding hair to make it easier to see and grasp the tick. In the case of the tick removal tool, follow the directions included for effective removal.
If using tweezers, put gentle downward pressure on the surrounding skin and grasp the tick where it meets the skin. Do not squeeze, crush, or puncture the body of the tick or you run the risk of squeezing the tick’s toxins right into your bloodstream. Once the head is grasped, pull backwards gently but firmly, using even, steady pressure. If you are higher than skin level, you might break off the mouthparts, leaving them in the skin. These usually cause irritation and a tick granuloma can develop, which is a lump of tissue that can become infected or require surgery to remove.
It’s a good idea to save the tick in case you want to have it tested for Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. Place in a plastic ziplock bag with a square of moist paper towel.
After removing the tick, wash your hands and the affected area well. There have been no studies done on what to apply to the skin afterward to reduce the possibility of infection. I prefer painting the area with an iodine solution because this is what’s used to sterilize skin prior to surgery and there is a volume of research that supports its use in that setting. Any oil-based preparation like ointments or essential oils may trap infection inside and not allow the wound to cleanse itself.
It’s no secret there are Lyme-endemic areas of the country where your risk of the disease being present in the tick that bit you is much higher than it is in other areas of the country. But, Lyme has been documented all across the country now, and other tick diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ehrlichiosis, and even the rare Powassan virus are on the rise, too. It can take 6 weeks for Lyme antibodies to be present in high enough amounts for a blood test to be positive, and by then, the damage is already being done. It makes sense to test the tick to see what you may have been exposed to and start the right treatment as early as possible if symptoms appear.
The risk of disease transmission increases the longer a tick has been attached. The saliva of the tick contains numbing anesthetic, anticoagulants to make the blood flow more easily, immune suppressors so the site doesn’t swell while it’s attached, and microorganisms like Lyme that can be transmitted right when it attaches. Though 24 hours of attachment is often cited as the time when transmission is most likely, studies have been done showing transmission of Lyme bacteria in less than this interval.
A study that was done in 2001 recommended a single 200 mg dose of doxycycline within 72 hours of the tick bite as a prophylaxis. They found it was over 90 percent effective in preventing Lyme. There were serious flaws with this study. First, all they looked for was the presence of the telltale erythema migrans rash that does not universally occur in people with Lyme disease. Also important is that antibody levels are lower in people who receive early treatment even when they are undertreated, so a negative blood test result could be considered a false negative. This point doesn’t relate as much to this study, however, because the testing wasn’t performed.
Since running out and getting antibiotics after every tick bite isn’t practical or good for your intestinal flora, having the tick tested may be your best option. Tick testing involves looking at the tick under a microscope to identify it, then doing a DNA probe to identify the microorganisms it’s carrying. If the tick tests positive for a disease, it doesn’t mean it has been transmitted to you, but you are at risk. If the tick tests negative, you can be confident you haven’t been exposed to those diseases.
The two tried and true labs in the US for tick testing are the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Connecticut. Both have quick turnaround times and have good track records for accuracy, and are the labs that most of the tick testing sites actually use when you order through them.
Once you’ve removed the tick, it’s time to take some preventative measures to minimize or avoid infection of any kind. You’ve already generously swabbed the area with iodine solution, and may be anxiously awaiting your tick testing results. I recommend starting with a homeopathic remedy known as Ledum. Dissolve 1 pellet of Ledum 30c under the tongue daily for 2 days after removing the tick. If you’ve had a tick-borne illness before, have a strong suspicion you’re infected, or are in an endemic area, I recommend sage herbalist Stephen Buhner’s advice of 3000mg Astragalus for 30 days, then 1000 mg daily thereafter.
If at any point after a tick bite you develop fever, body aches, or rash, I strongly recommend seeking medical help and considering an antibiotic. Remember, antibodies may not be present until 6 weeks after the bite, but symptoms of infection can start within days. It’s important to go in educated and patiently explain your concerns to the health care provider you see. When these infections aren’t treated properly at the start and are allowed to progress and become more chronic, they can be debilitating and affect the quality of the rest of your life.