Though commonly assumed to be insects, ticks are actually arachnids, like spiders and mites. They are exoparasites, meaning they attach to the outside of the host, rather than attacking from inside. They live on the blood of birds, reptiles, amphibians and especially mammals, including humans, inserting their cutting mandibles and feeding tube into the skin and slowly sucking out the blood, often over the course of days.
Ticks can be a dangerous pest to humans, because they are a vector for many diseases, including serious diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease, which can do a great deal of damage if not treated promptly.
If a tick is discovered on the skin, it should be removed as quickly as possible. There is a good chance disease transmission can be avoided this way, as transmission does not take place immediately when the tick begins feeding. The blacklegged tick that carries Lyme disease, for instance, doesn’t transmit the disease until an average of 36 to 48 hours into its feeding. So if you have spent a day hiking, and you discover a tick attached to you when you get home that evening, or even the next day, chances are you’ve caught it in time.
Follow these steps for proper tick removal:
1. Use fine-point tweezers to grasp the tick as close as you can to the head, to the point of attachment. The farther back you are on the body of the tick, the more chance the tick’s mouth parts will break off in the skin. Also, it is better to use unrasped, unetched, smooth tweezers in order to be able to grip and smoothly pull out the tick, especially a smaller tick, without breaking it off.
You can pull it out with your hand if you don’t have tweezers. If possible, use a tissue or leaf to avoid direct contact with the tick, and wash your hands immediately after.
2. Gently pull the tick straight out.
3. If any symptoms do develop, it may be helpful to be able to test the tick for the presence of certain bacteria. So you may want to keep the tick for this reason. The ideal container would be a vial of alcohol to kill and preserve it, with a label on the vial identifying who was bitten, where on their body, and the date.
Even if you don’t keep the tick, you’ll want to record that information, so you’ll know how much time has passed before the emergence of symptoms.
4. If any mouth parts appear to have been left in the skin, attempt to pull them out with the tweezers. If this cannot be done easily, don’t dig around in there too hard and potentially make the damage worse. Shortly the mouth parts should come out on their own as the skin sloughs off anyway, or seek medical assistance to remove them safely.
5. Wash the bite area of the skin and the tweezers with disinfectant.
For a video demonstrating proper tick removal, see the American Lyme Disease Foundation’s video page.
Some people attempt to first encourage the tick to disengage from the skin voluntarily instead of pulling it out and risking leaving some of the mouth parts in the skin. However, this is not advised. Placing it underwater, coating it with nail polish, petroleum jelly, etc. to drown or suffocate it does not work, because the tick has sufficient oxygen to stay where it is and complete its feeding. Holding a match head close to it or otherwise trying to pressure it to pull out will either do no damage to it and leave it undisturbed, or will risk releasing infected fluids or tissue from the tick.
In the days and weeks after tick removal, keep an eye on the bite area for a rash or other symptoms, and seek medical attention if you see anything awry.
“Lyme Disease.” American Lyme Disease Foundation
“Stop Ticks.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“Tick Removal.” Lyme Disease Foundation, Inc.