Or the widespread belief that you’ll feel it if you’ve been bitten by a tick. (The bites themselves are painless, which is why checking yourself after spending time in tick-infested areas is essential.)
One thing is true, though: It’s more important than ever to know how to protect yourself and your family.
“Ticks are the No. 1 cause of vector-borne disease in the U.S.,” says William Nicholson, a research microbiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And tick-transmitted infections, such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and anaplasmosis, are on the rise and spreading to new parts of the country.
Here, common myths (and truths) about ticks:
Myth 1: Natural repellents protect better than DEET.
The appeal of “natural” bug repellents is strong. But Consumer Reports’ tests have shown that bug sprays billed as natural — containing substances such as lemon grass, citronella, peppermint and rosemary — usually don’t perform as well as those that contain DEET. (The active ingredient in many conventional bug sprays, DEET has an odor so noxious to bugs that many avoid it.)
Two non-DEET ingredients have done well in CR tests. One is picaridin, which is modeled after a substance in the black pepper plant. Concentrations of 20 percent are most effective. The other is oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is extracted from the gum eucalyptus tree.
While Consumer Reports currently tests repellents only for their effectiveness against mosquitoes, our past testing has shown that repellents that work well for mosquitoes also help keep ticks at bay.
It’s important to know that DEET has been extensively studied, and, according to the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency, the evidence suggests that it’s safe when used as directed.
Myth 2: Ticks often fall from trees and onto people.
This is unlikely, experts say, given the way ticks search for their food. They do often climb while trying to find food, but generally only to the height of the animal they’re hoping to latch onto, Nicholson says.
That means they typically look for meals close to the ground where they may find mice and other rodents, and in bushes or tall grasses, where they can encounter deer and other larger mammals (such as humans).
Myth 3: The easiest way to remove a latched-on tick is with a lit match.
A tick that has crawled onto you but not yet bitten can easily be brushed away or washed off in the shower. Once a tick has latched on with its mouth, however, getting it off is trickier.
Common folk-wisdom strategies for getting that tick to detach include holding a lit match near it, smothering it with petroleum jelly or nail polish, and dabbing the spot with acetone or bleach.
All are questionable ideas, experts say. With the lit-match strategy, you may just end up burning yourself. And while you might kill the tick, that won’t necessarily cause the tick to detach, says Durland Fish, a professor emeritus of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.
As for the other methods above, even if they do work, they may take long enough to allow a tick to pass on an infection, Fish notes. (To transmit Lyme disease, a tick needs to remain attached for 24 to 48 hours. But other diseases can be transmitted more quickly.)
A better bet: As soon as you notice that a tick is attached, take proven steps to remove it. Using a pair of fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. Once you have a solid grip, firmly but steadily pull the tick directly backward from the bite site without twisting or jerking.
If you notice any parts remaining on your skin, use the tweezers to remove them. When you’re finished, clean your hands and the bite area with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.
Myth 4: If a tick bites you, it's important to have it tested for disease.
Plenty of laboratories offer to test ticks to determine whether they’re carrying any diseases. But the experts we spoke with said that’s generally not worth the money ($50 or more at some labs).
The reason: “Even if the tick is infected with something, it doesn’t mean that it was able to transmit that infection,” Fish says.
And if your tick comes back positive for Lyme disease or another infection, your doctor probably won’t treat you unless you start having symptoms, Telford says.
He recommends hanging on to any tick that has bitten you for a few weeks. If you do show signs of tick-borne illness, such as a rash at the site of the bite, joint pain and flulike symptoms, you can have the tick tested — which can help your doctor figure out what’s wrong.
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