When you find a tick on your skin, or feeding off a loved one, it’s alarming. The thought of a parasitic pest feeding on your blood is gross. And ticks can cause a host of diseases.
But don’t panic. Most tick bites won’t lead to disease. Plus, a tick usually has to be attached for at least 24 hours to pass on Lyme disease, the most common tickborne illness.
While it is important to remove a tick right away (some diseases transfer in minutes), you want to remove the tick properly. So take a few deep breaths and take your time to be careful when removing a tick.
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Steps for Removing a Tick
First, you’ll want to find some clean, fine-tipped tweezers. Then, position the tweezers so the tips are as close to the skin as possible, at the tick’s head or mouthparts. That way, you’ll get the entire tick, without leaving any mouthparts behind. (And yes, mouthparts is the technical name for the tick parts that pierce the skin and suck up blood).
Once you position your tweezers, gently squeeze and slowly pull the tick upward, with even pressure. You want to avoid twisting or jerking, as this can cause the mouthparts to break off.
After removing the tick, clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. This prevents bacteria that naturally exists outside the skin from entering the body and causing infection.
Avoid other techniques you may have heard about, such as nail polish, petroleum jelly, or using a hot match, for example. These techniques take longer and may not work, and it’s important not to waste time.
“If you notice a tick on your body within 24 to 36 hours, you can gently remove them with a pair of tweezers, making sure that all the mouth parts are removed and then rubbing the area with rubbing alcohol to disinfect the area,” says Rutul Dalal, MD, Infectious Diseases specialist, UPMC in North Central Pa. “Never touch a tick with bare hands. Always wear gloves and/or use tweezers to remove them.”
What To Do if Part of the Tick Remains in the Skin
Sometimes the mouthparts break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, first re-clean the tweezers. If the remaining parts are protruding in a way that you can easily remove them with tweezers, do so. Use the same firm and steady pull.
If the remaining mouthparts are stuck too deep in the skin, leave them. Trying too hard to remove them can increase the risk of infection. As long as you remove the tick’s body, it can no longer spread disease. Plus, the skin will push out the remaining part of the tick with time.
What to Do With the Tick Once It’s Removed
Be sure not to crush the tick with your fingers. Ticks can contain infectious bacteria, virus or parasites that crushing could release. Instead, place it in a sealable bag or container or drown it in 70% alcohol so it’s contained or dead before disposal.
Before you throw it away or flush it, you might want to compare the tick images to try to identify the species. Many tick-borne diseases are only carried by certain species of ticks.
For example, the most common tick-borne disease, Lyme Disease, is only carried by blacklegged ticks. So, determining whether your tick bite is from a blacklegged tick can help you understand if you’re at risk for Lyme.
However, ticks can be very difficult to accurately identify. This is not only because they are so small. Even within the same species, a fully engorged tick will look very different than an unfed tick, and males can look very different from females. A wrong identification can lead to unnecessary worry or false assurance.
If you have difficulty identifying the tick, some municipalities and states have programs that offer free or low-cost tick identification. Try doing an online search for tick identification and your state. Private companies also offer this service.
Should You Send the Tick for Testing?
Some advice online suggests sending the tick for testing, to see if it’s carrying disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control doesn’t recommend doing this because the results aren’t likely to help.
For one, a negative test result won’t guarantee that you weren’t exposed to a tick-borne illness. You could get a false negative, or the lab might not have tested for the specific pathogen the tick was carrying. Secondly, if the tick does test positive for a pathogen, that doesn’t mean the person with the tick bite will get sick.
Instead of testing the tick, it’s best to monitor the person for a few weeks after the bite. If the person develops a rash, flu-like symptoms, or other new and unusual symptoms (like seizures), see a doctor.
CDC. Lyme Disease. Link
CDC. Tick ID. Link
CDC. Tick Removal and Testing. Link
CDC. (2019). Tick Bite: What to do. Link
Caroline Picard. (2019). How to Remove a Tick the Right Way, According to Doctors (and an Entomologist!). Good Housekeeping. Link
Department of Environmental Conservation, State of Alaska. Tick Identification. Link
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