After a relaxing hike along the Michigan lakeshore, you return to your summer home with a collection of sea glass, a Petoskey stone, and a small brown bug on your arm. You’re not completely sure if it’s a tick since you haven’t seen one before, but you’re sure it’s a bug. It doesn’t hurt but it’s not budging and you decide it needs to come off.
Take a pair of tweezers and grasp the bug as close to the skin as possible. Pull straight up with the tweezers to detach the bug and not leave any remnants embedded. Don’t use petroleum jelly or a lit match (I know it sounds kooky but this has commonly been used as a tick removal technique).
Save the bug if you aren’t sure if it is a tick by putting it in a plastic bag.
Don’t freak out! Tick bites are common and even though we are seeing a boom in the tick population, fewer than 5 percent of tick bites will result in any illness at all. There’s no need for prophylactic treatment or worry. Remember where the bug was, though, and over the next couple of weeks look for signs of a rash forming.
The rash of Lyme disease looks like a rapidly growing target. Literally overnight the little redness near where the tick bite was changes to have central clearing and a red ring. The ring continues to extend outward and during this time you may have muscle aches, headache, and low grade fever. Sometimes, though, the only symptom is the rash. This is the time to seek medical care. Take photos of the rash so you can show how it has changed from one day to the next.
If you have the rash and a known tick bite, chances are you need antibiotics to prevent the infection from taking a stronger hold and causing arthritis or encephalitis. It’s easy to treat Lyme disease with antibiotics and your healthcare provider may also do some blood tests at the time of the rash and a few weeks later to confirm the rash was due to Lyme disease. When promptly treated, the infection is easy to manage and doesn’t go on to develop into a chronic illness.
Other tick-borne illnesses we see in Michigan can cause fever, headache, a spotty rash on the extremities and usually you are very sick, much more so than with Lyme disease. It’s rare to have one of the other tick-borne infections and not seek care because the symptoms are so significant.
Ticks need to be attached, though, for a long time (12-48 hours) before they can transmit illness, so make sure you do thorough tick checks of your clothes and skin every night if you are in a tick endemic area.
A handy brochure about tick-borne illness is available online from the State of Michigan. It has pictures of the various types of ticks and the symptoms of the various illnesses they can cause. It also has good information about prevention. If you’re traveling to Lake Michigan this summer I’d print it and bring it along!