Tick removal is a simple procedure, but it requires a steady hand and a thorough approach. While a tick bite doesn't usually cause any discomfort – in fact, you might not even realise you've been bitten until you spot the critter wedged in your skin – knowing how to remove a tick quickly and effectively can reduce your risk of Lyme disease and other infections.
Once you notice you've been bitten, it's important to send the tick packing as soon as possible, and the right technique is key to evicting the bug in its entirety. To help you hone your skills, Dr Carl J Brandt explains how to remove a tick and shares tips to minimise your risk of future bites:
What is tick removal?
A tick is a small, brown mite that needs to consume human or animal blood to survive. They live in wooded areas and fields, sitting on tall grass and trees until a potential 'host' passes by. Once it latches onto its victim, the tick will often find its way to a warm, moist, dark place on the body (like the crotch or the armpit) before attaching to the skin. Often the person carrying the tick is completely unaware it's there.
The tick inserts a probe into the skin and starts sucking blood. If you don't spot the tick and remove it, it'll detach on its own once full. This usually occurs after a few days, but it can take up to a fortnight. Unfortunately, ticks often carry diseases – including the bacteria for Lyme disease – and can pass them on, which is why swift tick removal is essential. The sooner you remove the tick, the lower your risk of contracting an infection or disease.
Why is tick removal important?
Sometimes ticks carry microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses and protozoa, which can lead to infection. In the UK, some ticks carry bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi in their stomach, which is passed on during the blood-sucking process. This can cause an infection known as Lyme disease. The longer the tick remains attached, the greater the risk of catching a tick-borne disease, especially if it's there for more than 36 hours.
Not every tick carries disease – in fact, only a small number of ticks are infected with the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. A tick bite can only cause Lyme disease if the tick has already bitten an infected animal. However, that doesn't mean tick removal isn't essential. There's no way of telling whether your tick has the bacteria or not.
Around 1,000 cases of Lyme disease occur every year in England and Wales, according to Public Health England. Up to 15 per cent result from people travelling abroad, but the rest typically occur in countryside areas, such as Exmoor, the New Forest, the Yorkshire Moors or the Highlands of Scotland, where tick-carrying animals such as deer are found.
There are many other tick-borne diseases around the world, including Rocky Mountain Fever in the east and south west of America– which is caused by an infection with an organism called Rickettsia rickettsia – and Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever, which occurs in Southern Asia, Northern Africa and Southern Europe, and is caused by a virus. If you think you might have an infection, make an emergency appointment with your GP.
How to prepare for tick removal
First, you'll need to locate the tick. Ticks are small, flat and oval-shaped, and are typically an orange-brown colour with dark legs. A tick on the body doesn't usually cause any pain. You may not realise you have a tick on you unless you see it on your skin. You'll need a few supplies to evict it – a pair of tweezers, soap and water, and a small jar to store the tick in.
How do you remove an embedded tick?
Since ticks press their head into the skin, it's important to try and remove the entire thing, as any remnants in the skin could cause infection. Follow these 5 steps for fast and effective tick removal:
Seize the tick with clean tweezers, grasping it as close to the head as possible. Take care not to squash the tick of pull it apart.
Pull upwards slowly, with even pressure and speed, until it lets go. Don't pull too hard or twist the tick's body as you're pulling it out.
Alternatively, tie a cotton thread around the tick – as close to the head as possible – and pull slowly until it lets go.
If the tick breaks, make sure to remove the rest of the tick's head. Don't leave anything behind.
Clean the bite area, the tweezers, and your hands with antiseptic or soap and water. Store the tick in a jar – you may need it if you experience any symptoms.
What to do if the tick head gets stuck
If the tick is accidentally pulled apart during tick removal and the head stays stuck in the skin, there's a risk of being infected with other microscopic organisms. This kind of infection has nothing to do with Lyme disease, but can still be dangerous and unpleasant. If any part of the tick is left in the skin, see a doctor.
What will make a tick back out?
To make the tick back out, grasp at the tick with tweezers, and pull firmly and steadily. It should let go of the skin. Don't attempt to remove the tick by burning it with a match, dousing it in rubbing alcohol, lubricating it with oil, or freezing it with an ice cube. And definitely don't crush or kill the tick while it's still attached to you. This will increase the risk of infection.
What liquid will remove a tick?
There's no liquid that can remove a tick from your skin. Some people recommend applying liquid soap to a cotton ball until it's soaked through and covering the tick for 30 seconds. However, smothering the tick is generally advised against, since it can make the bite worse. Experts agree the safest, most efficient tick removal method involves gentle, firm tweezing.
Does Vaseline kill ticks?
Sadly the rumours are not true and smearing Vaseline (or any petroleum jelly) on the tick won't make the removal easier, and could in fact make the bite worse. By antagonising the tick, it might release more saliva – or worse, regurgitate its stomach contents – into your bite wound. Which is exactly what you don't want to happen, so avoid Vaseline at all costs.
Tick removal and Lyme disease
If you've been bitten by a tick and removed it, the risk of getting Lyme disease is so small that there is no reason to seek medical advice. It is, however, important to watch out for symptoms that may indicate Lyme disease, especially a bull's-eye rash close to the tick bite.
Lyme disease symptoms
If a raised, red spot with a clear centre appears, contact your doctor. The rash can appear up to three months after being bitten by a tick and usually lasts for several weeks. Most rashes appear within the first four weeks. Early symptoms of Lyme disease include the following:
Fever and chills
Muscle and joint pain
If you experience any of these symptoms after tick removal, see your doctor immediately, and they will test you for Lyme disease. Treatment consists of a two- or four-week course of antibiotics. If the disease is severe – or in its later stages – intravenous antibiotics may be required. Left untreated, Lyme disease can cause chronic conditions such as arthritis, nervous system disease (neuroborreliosis) and meningitis, so it's important to get tested.
How to avoid tick bites
While tick exposure can occur year-round, ticks are most active during warmer months (April to September). You should take precautions to minimise your risk of tick bites both before you go outside and after you go indoors.
✔️ Avoid their home
Ticks live in grassy areas, especially wooded or heath areas. Avoid wooded brushy areas with high grass and walk in the middle of trails where possible.
✔️ Treat your clothes
Keep the bugs at bay by treating your clothing and outside gear with products containing 0.5 per cent permethrin. Apply insect repellant before you head out.
✔️ Cover up
Keep trousers tucked into walking boots and wear long sleeves where possible. Choose light-coloured clothing so ticks are easier to spot and brush off.
✔️ Check your clothing
When you get home, carefully examine your clothes, gear and pets. Put clothes in the tumble dryer for 10 minutes on high heat to kill ticks. If you need to wash clothes, use hot water if possible.
Ideally, aim to hop in the shower within two hours of coming indoors – it can help wash off unattached ticks.
Last updated: 22-04-21
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