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What to Do if You Get a Tick Bite

Woman holding a sticky note with a tick taped to it, labeled "Cass, Back of Right Thigh, 5/20"

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It happens to me more often than I’d like—I feel an itch somewhere on my body, reach down to scratch, and feel a little lump that wasn’t there before—uh-oh, I’ve got a tick bite! What do I do? How do I remove the tick safely? How do I treat the bite site? In this post, I’m going to walk you through the exact protocol I use when I find a tick on myself or someone in my family.

Before we get started though, an important note: I am not a healthcare professional and have absolutely zero hours of healthcare training (I have a fine arts degree, thankyouverymuch). This protocol for removing a tick is based on what works for us in our own home and was developed from lots of research and trial-and-error. As with all content on Wholefully, this is presented for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for the advice of your healthcare professional. You can read our full disclosures document here.

Thumb pointing to a tick on a leg.

The very first thing I do when I find a tick is take a deep breath. Seriously, I take one long deep breath. I want to do this tick removal thing properly, and I can’t do that if I’m freaking out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Secondly, I ask myself the question: is the tick latched on or just crawling around? If it’s just crawling around, I pick that jerk off and either flush it down the toilet or smash it with my foot. I’m normally more of a catch-and-release kinda gal, but not with ticks. Kill. Kill. Kill. And yay! I didn’t get a tick bite! I’m done. Woohoo!

If it is latched on, it’s time to get that guy packing. I grab my tick kit. (You do have a tick kit, don’t you? Nope? Well, you can learn how to make one at this post).

Hand holding a gray pouch with a "no ticks" label. The pouch contains a tick kit - everything you need to deal with a tick bite.

This is the stuff I use from my tick kit for tick removal:

  • A sticky note
  • Something to write with
  • A tick removal tool—I like a tick key, but a pair of tweezers works in a pinch
  • Some scotch tape
  • A small zip-top bag
  • Something to clean the bite area—I like just warm soapy water and a washcloth
  • Some sort of antibiotic treatment—I prefer to use herbal antibiotics in the form of andrographis tincture or my Antimicrobial Black Drawing Salve, but a pharmaceutical antibiotic like Neosporin will also work
  • A bandage
  • Bentonite clay—optional, but recommended

Step 1: Document

It is easier and more affordable to test for tickborne illnesses in ticks than in humans. So I save every tick that bites a member of my family for possible later testing. Before I remove the tick, I take a sticky note and write the date, the person the tick was attached to, and where it was attached (right wrist, behind left ear, etc.).

Sharpie writing on a green sticky note, which says "Cass, Upper Right Arm, 6/20"

Step 2: Remove the tick

There are two things I keep in mind when removing a tick: (1) I want to get every piece out and (2) I want to try not to squeeze the body of the tick. By squeezing the body, it just squirts the pathogen soup from the tick back into my body. That is why a tick key is so good—it removes the tick at the head without squeezing the body at all. Just pull the skin taut, slide the tick key around the tick, and then firmly pull until it is removed. (I had to Photoshop ticks into these photos because we’ve reduced our tick population so much, they are hard to find now!)

Hand using a teal tick key to remove a tick from a forearm.

If I don’t have my tick key around, tweezers will also work. Tweezers are also the better option when there is a lot of hair in the way (like on the scalp). They have specific tick removal tweezers out there, but I haven’t found them any better than my regular ole CoverGirl pink tweezers.

Again, I pull the skin taut, and place the tweezers right against the skin where the head is connected. Squeeze around the tick’s head, and then firmly pull to remove it. I try not to squeeze the body—I really try to make sure the touchpoint of the tweezers is right on the place where the tick connects to the person’s body.

Hand using pink tweezers to remove a tick from a forearm.

The tweezer method tends to sometimes leave remnants behind (parts of the legs or head)—especially when working with smaller ticks—so I just use the tweezers to get the remainder out. If the tick has been embedded for a long time, the area might be very swollen, and it can be hard to get everything out. A drawing salve can help with this, but another option is to mix up some bentonite clay with water and place it on the tick bite for a few hours—this will reduce the swelling and help draw out the tick parts.

If I still cannot get all the parts out, then I pack up and take a trip to the doctor or urgent care center. They can numb the area and make sure the entire tick is removed and sterile.

Step 3: Save that tick!

Most people throw out a tick after removal, but as we talked about above, I save every tick that bites my family. I place the tick on the sticky note I created and tape it down with a piece of scotch tape. Then I place it in a zip-top bag in my freezer.

Hand holding a green sticky note with a tick taped to it. The note is labeled "Cass, Upper Right Arm, 6/20"

The bare minimum I’d feel comfortable with is keeping the tick for a month, but we tend to keep an entire season of ticks in the freezer at a time. We just keep them in the same bag in the door.

Step 4: Treat the bite area

Once the tick is out, I then clean the area well with soap and water. Antiseptic spray or cleaner could also be used here. Then, I like to do a bit of prophylactic treatment and use herbal antibiotics on the bite site. Two ways I’ve done this in the past: I cover the spot liberally in Andrographis tincture and stop there if it’s a hairy spot, but if it’s bare skin, I then put a big glob of bentonite clay mixed with water over it. The Andrographis boosts immunity and is naturally antimicrobial. The bentonite clay helps to draw pathogens (and the itchiness!) out of the skin. I then cover the whole thing with a big ole bandage.

Three panel image. In the first, a tincture is applied to a tick bite on an arm. In the middle, a salve is slathered on the arm. In the last, a bandage covers the salve.

Another option I am now using is to cover the tick bites with my Antimicrobial Black Drawing Salve and then just covering the whole thing in a bandage. If it’s a hairy spot, I stick to just the Andrographis tincture still.

A glass jar of black drawing salve with herbs surrounding it, and a labeled lid next to it.

I’ve also used a traditional antibiotic ointment (like Neosporin) in a pinch as well. Either way, I leave it on for 24 hours before removing. I then let the bite live in open air or cover it up with a fresh dressing—whichever feels more comfortable. A word of warning: tick bites can be incredibly itchy for weeks. It’s the worst.

Step 5: Watch and wait (or act now!)

Since I live in non-Lyme-endemic area, I keep a close eye on the bite location. I look out for any strange markings (like the traditional bullseye pattern of Lyme disease) or strange reactions. I also keep an eye out for any abnormal symptoms elsewhere in the body over the next few weeks—fevers, joint pain, flu-like symptoms.

If anything weird pops up, I call my healthcare professional, and then immediately send the tick off to be tested through TickReport.com—a non-profit service from the University of Massachusetts. It does run a base of $50 for a tick test (although there are some federal and state subsidies that TickReport offers depending on your location), but that is wayyyyy more affordable than the $800-$1000 out-of-pocket for a high quality Lyme test for humans. And they get me the results within three business days! I usually get my tick results back before I even get into my appointment with my health care professional.

An important reminder about tick testing: it can only test your possible exposure to tickborne pathogens, not if you’re actually infected with the illnesses. We use tick testing as a first line of information. Basically, if it comes back negative, we can assume we haven’t been exposed (at least with that particular tick). If it comes back positive, we move forward with our health care professionals for more robust methods of testing and diagnosis.

Hand holding an iPhone showing test results from tickreport.com

If you do live in a Lyme-endemic area, it’s worth talking with your health care professional about potential prophylactic treatment through herbal or pharmaceutical antibiotics. Some areas of the country are so endemic that any tick is automatically considered to be carrying Lyme or other tickborne illnesses. If you live in one of those areas, chances are your healthcare professional will have dealt with this many times and be able to offer recommendations on the next steps.

And that’s it. We move on with our lives and try hard not to scratch the bite site! I hope this helps you navigate the world of tick removal more confidently. As always, if you have any questions about this or any other medical issues, please contact your healthcare professional. And of course, prevention is the best medicine—here’s how we’re keeping ticks away (mostly) naturally!

Cassie is the founder and CEO of Wholefully. She's a home cook and wellness junkie with a love of all things healthy living. She lives on a small hobby farm in Southern Indiana with her husband, daughter, two dogs, two cats, and 15 chickens.

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3 Responses
  1. Pat

    Great information, thank you for sharing what you’ve learned. I hope I never need to use this information but I’m saving a copy.

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