Every spring in Michigan, as ticks wake up from their winter dormancy around the same time many humans seem to wake up from theirs, public health experts remind people to brush up on the basics of tick bite prevention and removal.
But in the unfortunate case of one attaching itself to you, there’s one key step that should always follow removing it: Keep the tick.
Perhaps understandably, many people’s instinct is to flush the tick down the nearest drain. But saving a tick that bites you can give you and your health care providers the opportunity to properly ID the tick, which could help determine the correct course of treatment should you happen to get sick as a result of the tick’s bite.
“The thing is, because different ticks transmit different pathogens, knowing which tick species you have and also which [tick] life stage you have can help narrow down that list,” says Jean Tsao, an associate professor at Michigan State University who researches ticks and tick-borne illness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than a dozen tick-borne pathogens that can cause human diseases. Those diseases include Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which result from bacteria that can be carried by the black-legged tick and American dog tick, respectively.
But not all ticks carry diseases, and different pathogens take different amounts of time to fully transmit to a person after a tick bite. For example, the CDC says Lyme disease risk is low if a black-legged tick has been attached for less than 24 hours, which is why experts recommend checking for ticks daily and removing any attached tick immediately.
So what’s the best way to save a tick that’s asking you? After an embedded tick is carefully removedTsao recommends placing the tick in a resealable plastic bag and freezing it, which preserves it for easier identification. (An unfrozen tick in a plastic bag will eventually dry up and be tough to ID, she says.)
Further, Tsao says the bag should be labeled with the date of the tick’s removal as well as potential dates and locations where the tick may have been picked up, which can help further narrow down the possible pathogens should you become ill.
If you’d like to know right away what type of tick you have on your hands, there are several tick safety apps, such as The Tick App and Tick Encounter, which can help guide you. Free tick identification is also available for Michigan residents through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
If the tick happens to be a species known to transmit disease, think twice about sending it to a lab for pathogen testing. The CDC discourages using lab test results when deciding whether to use preventative antibiotics after a tick bite, on the basis that results may be misleading and not reliable.
As ticks and tick-borne illness keep spreading to new areas across Michigan and the US at large, approaches to preventative disease treatment have continued to evolve, which can make navigating tick-bite treatment murky. Current CDC clinician guidelines outline multiple criteria for prescribing antibiotics to prevent Lyme disease, for example, although some health care providers may be more conservative in their approach.
Regardless of what type of tick you have in that little baggie, “the guidance is to always still watch for disease,” Tsao says.