I randomly found a tick on my side earlier this week and did what anyone would do: I had a minor freak-out, ripped it off my body, flushed it down the toilet, and texted my husband about how gross the experience was. But, even though the tick is long gone, I’ve been silently spazzing about it ever since.
After all, I’ve repeatedly read about how Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Yolanda Foster, along with her daughter Bella Hadid, and singer Avril Lavigne have been left incapacitated by the tick-borne Lyme disease, and I have an aunt who has battled the disease for years. The small, itchy red bump the tick left behind is a constant reminder that Lyme disease, the tick-borne illness caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, could happen to anyone—including me.
Now that the weather is warmer and we start to spend more time outdoors, there’s a greater chance that we’ll all be more exposed to ticks—and potentially Lyme disease. Is my freak-out justified?
Maybe, says board-certified infectious disease specialist Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. While approximately 30,000 new cases of the disease are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year, Adalja says everyone’s personal risk really depends on where they live. “In Pennsylvania, for example, the ticks have a high prevalence of Lyme disease, so there’s a high likelihood,” he says. “But if you’re not in one of those areas, the likelihood is less.”
The CDC has a map online that breaks down high-risk areas, which are largely concentrated in the northeastern U.S., as well as parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Nancy Troyano, Ph.D., an entomologist with Rentokil pest control, warns that “the prediction for this season is a higher prevalence of ticks than we usually see around this time.”
It also matters how long the tick is latched on to your body Adalja says. “It has to be attached for 48 to 72 hours—it won’t instantly pass” the bacteria, he says.
While Lyme disease isn’t the only disease that can be passed from ticks (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Ehrlichiosis are two notable tick-borne illnesses), you shouldn’t automatically assume that you’ll get sick from having a tick bite, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious-disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “There are many tick bites and, even taking all of the tick-borne illnesses together, relatively few illnesses,” he tells SELF.
Schaffner urges prevention—namely in the form of wearing insect repellent with DEET when you’re going to be in bushy or wooded areas. But, if you spot a tick on your body, he recommends staying calm and following the proper procedure to get rid of it. That means getting a tissue, grabbing the tick firmly as close to the surface of your skin as possible, and very slowly pulling it out, perpendicular to your skin. “You don’t want to yank it—you can leave the head embedded,” he says. “Pull it out slowly and steadily.” (I definitely pulled a little too enthusiastically and now have two little holes where the tick had latched on.)
You may have a little redness or a bump for three to four days afterward, but it should go away, he says.
However, if you were bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, you can start to experience symptoms within week or so, says Adalja. Those include flu-like symptoms like a fever, chills, and rash, and often a “bulls-eye rash” with a red dot in the center and a ring around it that spreads outward. (According to the CDC, the rash is rarely itchy or painful.)
If you notice any of these symptoms after removing a tick or being in an area where ticks are prevalent, call your doctor. Early detection is important with Lyme disease, Schaffner says: “Antibiotic treatment can eradicate it if you catch it early.”
To lower the odds it will happen to you, Adalja recommends doing a bodily inspection after you’ve been outdoors in a rural area or your yard. “If you inspect your body every 24 hours, it’s unlikely you’ll contract Lyme disease,” he says.