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How to safely remove a tick

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removing a tick from skin

Story at-a-glance -

  • A tick may take anywhere from a few minutes to 36 hours to transmit diseases to humans, so it’s important that you remove it as soon as you find out you’ve been bitten by one
  • There are several tick-removal tools available in the market, such as tick tweezers, tick-removal cards and hook-like instruments. But if you don’t have any of these tools on hand, normal fine-tipped tweezers will work just fine
  • You can lower your risk for tick bites by repelling these parasites using essential oils, diatomaceous earth and garlic

Often mistaken for insects, ticks are small, eight-legged parasites that belong to the arachnid family, along with spiders, scorpions and mites.1 They survive solely by feeding on the blood of their host. They're known to be resilient, with records suggesting that they existed 65 to 146 million years ago.2

Ticks are more active during warmer months, usually between March and November, living in warm and moist places like bushes, grasses and shrubs. Animals and humans can acquire ticks while walking through these areas.3 There are around 850 tick species in the world, which come in a variety of colors and sizes, but only a select few are known to bite humans.4

When a tick gets on your body, it's not likely to bite right away. Rather, it will crawl around your body to look for a suitable place to feed, often choosing the soft and moist spots of skin such as on your ears, hairline, waistline, armpits and groin.

A tick will latch onto your body by piercing your skin with its mouth, inserting a feeding tube into the wound and feeding on your blood until it's full. If not removed, the tick will eventually fall off on its own after it's engorged — this could take anywhere from a few days to two weeks.5,6

Since tick bites are often painless, it can be hard to tell if you've been bitten or not. Some of the minor symptoms that tick bites cause include redness, swelling, itchiness and soreness on the bitten area.7 While tick bites are often harmless, some can transmit serious diseases such as:8

  • Lyme disease
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever
  • Colorado tick fever
  • Tularemia
  • Ehrlichiosis

A tick may take anywhere from a few minutes to 36 hours to transmit diseases to humans, so it's important that you remove it as soon as you find out that you've been bitten by one.9

How to remove a tick safely

How to Remove a Tick Safely

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A tick that has burrowed its way into your skin can be difficult to remove because of its barbed feeding tube,10 which also acts as its anchor to your body.11 There are several tick-removal tools available in the market, such as tick tweezers, tick-removal cards and hook-like instruments. But if you don't have any of these tools on hand, normal fine-tipped tweezers will work just fine. If you've been bitten by a tick, follow this step-by-step guide to remove it safely:12,13,14

  1. Grasp the tick with clean tweezers as close to your skin's surface as possible — this helps you grab the tick as close as possible to its head.
  2. Pull the tick out gently and with steady pressure. Avoid twisting or jerking it, as this can cause its head to break off and stay embedded in your skin. You should also avoid squeezing the tick, since this could squeeze the infectious fluid out of it.
  3. After the tick has been removed, thoroughly clean the bitten area with soap and water. Temporarily put the tick in a sealed container, so you can show it to your physician in case you develop other symptoms after a few days.

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How to remove a tick head

It's not uncommon for a tick head to remain stuck in the skin despite careful removal. Here's how to tell if a mouthpart of a tick is still stuck in your skin and what you should do to properly remove it:15,16

  1. After pulling out a tick, inspect the bitten area for a small black dot. This is an indicator that the tick head is left behind.
  2. Using pointed tweezers, try to remove the remaining part.
  3. After removing the tick head, clean up the bite area with soap and water.

If you can't get rid of a lodged tick head, contact your physician to have it removed. Although the tick head will eventually be expelled from your body as the wound heals, it's still best to have it removed to reduce your risk for infections.17

3 natural tick repellents

To avoid being bitten by ticks, use these natural repellents to keep them at bay, especially during the summer months:

  1. Essential oils — Some of the essential oils that have been found to be effective at repelling ticks include citronella, lemongrass, rose geranium, peppermint and citrus oil.18 These oils can be applied on clothing, lawns and gardens.19 You can also use them on your skin, provided that you dilute them with a carrier oil like coconut oil.20
  2. Food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) — DE absorbs the oils and fats from the exoskeleton of ticks, causing them to die of dehydration.21 If you want to get rid of ticks around your home, sprinkle this white powder in places where ticks may nest, such as in moist and shaded areas. Be sure to limit its use to places where ticks may hide, as DE can also kill beneficial insects.22
  3. Garlic According to a study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, multiple applications of garlic juice-based products on a residential landscape may help suppress tick activity.23

Aside from using the natural tick-repellents mentioned above, you can also reduce your risk for tick bites by simply avoiding areas where ticks are likely to be found, such as tall grasses, shrubs and leaf litter. Wearing protective clothing such as long sleeves, closed shoes and pants tucked into your socks also helps keep ticks from making their way to your body. You should also check your body for ticks every time you come in from the outdoors and while you're showering.24

What not to do when you're bitten by a tick

There are many misconceptions regarding the proper removal of ticks. Some recommended methods are ineffective and will only increase your risk for an infection or injury, so they're best avoided. These include applying petroleum jelly, nail polish, toothpaste or glue to the tick in an attempt to suffocate it, as well as using sharp forceps, squeezing the tick's body, or poking it with a hot match or nail.25

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Q: What do you do if you pull a tick out and its head stays in?

A: You can either remove the stuck tick head on your own or you can have it removed by a doctor.26

Q: What happens if the tick's head stays in?

A: Stuck mouthparts are often harmless, but they can sometimes cause inflammation or increase the risk for infections, so they're best removed as soon as possible.27,28

Q: How do you tell if a tick's head is still embedded in your skin?

A: If a tick head is left behind in your skin, you will see a small black dot on the bite site.29

Q: How do I remove an embedded tick head?

A: You can try to pull out a stuck tick head using a pair of pointed tweezers.30 However, if you can't remove it easily, do not try to dig it out. Instead, contact a medical professional so they can safely remove it for you.31

Q: Can a tick head regrow its body?

A: No, a detached tick head won't be able to regrow its entire body. Ticks can only regenerate lost body parts like their legs.32

Q: Do ticks fall off on their own?

A: Yes. If not discovered and removed manually, ticks will continue to feed on their host until they're full, after which they fall off on their own.33

Q: When should you consult your doctor about a tick bite?

A: Contact your doctor if you develop a rash on the site of the tick bite and if you experience flu-like symptoms. You should also seek immediate medical attention if you experience severe headache, difficulty breathing, paralysis or heart palpitations after being bitten by a tick.34