A tick on the end of a finger.

When it comes to ticks, old wives’ tales are in great supply. Take, for instance, the one about burning an embedded tick with a lit match or the one about covering it with nail polish to get it to let go. (There's no proof that either of these works.)

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, Ph.D., 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 U.S.

Here, common myths (and truths) about ticks.

Myth 1: Natural Repellents Protect Better Than Deet

The appeal of “natural” bug repellents is strong—keeping ticks away without relying on man-made ingredients.

more on ticks

But Consumer Reports’ tests have shown that bug sprays billed as natural—containing substances such as lemongrass, citronella, peppermint, and rosemary—usually don’t perform as well as those that contain deet. (Deet, the active ingredient in many conventional bug sprays, has an odor so noxious to bugs that many avoid it.)

Two nondeet 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 (OLE), which is extracted from the gum eucalyptus tree. One of three products we tested containing 30 percent OLE earned a high score in our ratings. (Find out whether 'natural' insect repellents work.)

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.

Picaridin and OLE are good alternatives if you don’t want to use deet—though most of CR’s recommended products contain deet and it’s considered the gold standard for bug repellents.

It’s also 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 in bug repellents. (Read more about deet safety.)

Myth 2: Ticks Often Fall From Trees and Onto People

This is unlikely, experts say, given the way ticks search for their food—human and animal blood.  

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 to find mice and other rodents, and in bushes or tall grasses for deer and other larger mammals (such as humans).

While it’s possible for ticks to climb trees, it’s not usual, because they’re unlikely to find potential hosts up so high.

But it’s a good idea to wear a hat while you’re outside in tick-prone areas even if the bugs aren’t falling from trees. (See more here on what to wear.)

That’s because once a tick lands on you, it crawls around until it finds an appealing place to bite, says Sam Telford, S.D., professor of infectious disease and global health at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Often that’s under the arms or behind the knees, inside the navel or between the legs, in or around the ears—and, yes, in hair.

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 you 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.

That’s because a tick that has attached itself to you generally stays attached until it has satiated itself with your blood. 

Common folk wisdom strategies for getting that tick to detach include holding a lit match toward 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, Ph.D., professor emeritus of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, “A dead tick is not going to come off any more easily than a live tick,” he says.

As for the other methods above, even if they do work—and it’s not clear that they will—they may take long enough to allow a tick to pass on an infection, Fish notes. (In order to transmit Lyme disease, a tick needs to remain attached for 24 to 48 hours. But other diseases could be transmitted sooner.)

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 in 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 generally it’s not worth your 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 afterward, taping it to an index card and noting the date and where you may have picked the bug up. If you do start showing 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.

How to Keep Ticks out of Your Yard

Ticks love tall grass and cool, damp areas. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Catherine Roberts explains how to make your yard less inviting to these pests.