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Ticks are small, bloodsucking arthropods related to spiders, scorpions, and mites.
Most ticks have a preferred host at different stages of their lives, such as deer or mice, for instance. However, many will bite a human or dog if the opportunity arises.
Ticks have four stages in their life-cycle: Egg, larva, nymph, and adult. It is a tick at the nymph stage that is most likely to bite. At this point in their development, some species can be as small as the full stops on this page.
Ticks can spread Lyme disease, which is reportable as a public health concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 30,000 people report having Lyme disease each year.
Other tickborne diseases include relapsing fever, tularemia, human babesiosis, Texas cattle fever, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
This article provides information on steps to take if you receive a bite, which tools to use, and how to reduce the risk of tick bite.
If you do find a tick on your skin, or that of any children or pets, it is important to remove them quickly.
Ticks usually take more than 24 hours of attachment to transmit a pathogen through a bite, including the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi. However, some infections may transmit more quickly.
The best approach for removal is as follows:
- Do not handle the tick directly. Use fine tweezers and avoid blunt eyebrow tweezers. Gloves may be a suitable alternative if tweezers are unavailable and the tick is large enough to grasp with your fingers.
- Hold the tick as close to its mouthparts as possible. It will be these parts that are attached to the skin.
- Do not squeeze the distended belly of the tick, as this could cause fluid to be squeezed into your body and increase the risk of disease transmission.
- Gently pull the tick away from your body. Do not twist it, as this may snap off the mouthparts, which will remain in your skin and pose a risk of transmitting pathogens.
- If the mouthparts of the tick remain in the skin, try to remove them with the tweezers.
- Keep the tick in a dry jar, pill bottle, or zipper storage bag should later identification be needed. Store the tick for up to 10 days in the freezer or refrigerator, and label it with the bite date and location.
- Wash your hands and the area of the bite with warm, soapy water. You may want to use an antibiotic ointment on the area for extra protection.
- Continue to check the rest of your body for ticks.
A tick has a firm grip because of two mechanisms. The embedded mouthparts include a barbed protuberance called a hypostome. Ticks also release a cement-like substance to improve their grip.
Contact a doctor if you are unable to remove the tick.
Some ticks are so small, it is difficult to see them. This makes it hard to tell if you have removed the head. If you cannot see any obvious parts of the head, assume you have removed the entirety of the tick.
Monitor any potential symptoms over the next few weeks, including:
- joint pain
- flu-like symptoms
Any of the above could indicate a tick-borne infection. Visit a doctor if these become evident.
Other specifics to avoid
There are common mistakes people make when trying to remove ticks.
It is best to avoid the following:
- While it remains in your skin, do not attempt to smother the tick with compounds like petroleum jelly, nail polish, rubbing alcohol, or gasoline.
- Do not attempt to burn the tick while it is embedded in your skin.
If you do not wish to keep the tick for future reference, dispose of it sensibly. The body may still contain infected blood, so crushing it could cause this fluid to be released. Folding the tick into a piece of sticky tape and disposing of it in the trash is the simplest method of dispatch.
Any of the above actions might cause the tick to regurgitate fluids into your body, increasing the risk of an infection.
Preventing tick bites reduces the need for knowing how to remove them.
The most effective method is to avoid initial contact. Take the following steps to reduce the risk of contact:
- Avoid wooded areas with large amounts of leaf litter.
- Stick to the center of paths.
- Wear long trousers tucked into your boots and a long sleeved top.
- Keep gardens neat, avoiding log-piles and long grass, and keep an eye out for ticks at home.
Should you come into contact with ticks but need to repel them, the following options are available:
- Use repellents that contain 20 to 30 percent DEET on any exposed skin, being careful to avoid getting repellent in the mouth or eyes.
- Treat clothing and camping equipment with permethrin to create a longer-lasting barrier.
- Citronella might be useful in conjunction with other products to provide extra protection.
An excellent range of repellents for ticks is available for purchase online, with thousands of customer reviews.
Where do you find ticks?
Ticks need moisture in the air to complete their life cycle, so water is an essential part of their environment.
They also favor warmer regions and times of year, because cold climates inhibit their transformation from egg to larva and cold weather slows their movement.
Changing climates mean that many northern regions previously uninhabited by ticks are now developing tick infestations.
In short, all a tick requires to flourish is warm, moist air and an animal on which to feed. Any wooded area with a wealth of plants and animals is likely to be an opportune area for ticks.
Identifying ticks is the first step to removing them.
Check for ticks after spending any time outdoors in areas to which they would usually flock.
- Bathe or shower as soon as you re-enter your home. This will help wash off any less securely bonded ticks and help you spot any others.
- After showering, stand in front of a mirror and conduct a whole body search, using a magnifying glass to help spot small ticks.
- Closely investigate children and pets, and also check any outdoor gear you were using.
- Place your clothing in a dryer on a high heat for an hour to destroy any remaining ticks.
There are a number of tick removal tools on the market. These can be particularly useful where pets are concerned. Tick removal tools are either hooked or form a small loop.
Both are designed to assist with pulling the tick out by the mouthparts without breaking off parts of the head.
Tick removal tools for pets and people are available for purchase online.
An alternative method of tick removal uses cotton. Simply tie a small loop of cotton around the mouthparts, as close to the skin as possible, and pull up and out. Do not twist.
If you do not have specialized removal tools, fine-tipped tweezers are an effective alternative.
Durland Fish, a professor emeritus at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, CT, told The Wall Street Journal:
“I’m not convinced that anything will be better than fine-tipped tweezers.”
On the other hand, Glen R. Needham, an emeritus associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH, compared two of the top removal tools in a study published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine.
He came to the conclusion that they outperformed standard thin-nosed tweezers.
Remove the tick as soon as you can, with the best tool you can find, and dispose of it appropriately. Seek medical attention if any symptoms occur.