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How to remove a tick: correcting the irritating old wives tales

Lestat and Ed Cullen have nothing on this place.  At least you've been warned.
Lestat and Ed Cullen have nothing on this place. At least you've been warned.

Ticks are creepy. Let’s face it. No matter how engaging a writer Anne Rice is or how much money the Twilight series rakes in, things sucking your blood are creepy, even if they look like Tom Cruise or Robert Pattinson. The nice difference between the fictional world of vampires and the real world of vampire insects is that with the latter you are more likely to live, though, if Twilight is to be believed, you won’t be able to sparkle while you emote portentous brooding. The real world of blood sucking ticks is not without its own perils, however, and none of this becomes clearer than when examining the problem of removing a tick when it has attached itself to you.

The first step, of course is realizing there is a tick present. In the previous column, your Intrepid Pharmacist extolled the virtues of full body examination upon return from outdoor activities from gardening to hiking, especially considering the high occurrences of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Erlichiosis within the state. Ticks are very stealthy and can go about their business nearly undetected. Case in point #1: One of your Intrepid Pharmacist’s patients had a tick bite on his back and he was completely unaware. At no time did he ever feel anything unusual…until a rash appeared a week or so later. Case in point #2: Your Intrepid Pharmacist once assisted in an examination of a lady who had an irritated mole under her right breast that was causing some discomfort. Closer examination revealed it to be a tick, which was removed and placed in a sample jar because the patient wanted to show her family. There truly is no accounting for taste.

This brings things neatly to the issue of tick removal. Before getting into the right way to do it, your Intrepid Pharmacist needs to address the myriad of wrong ways to remove a tick—and why they are wrong ways. The depth and breadth of various home treatments and old wives tales with which he has been presented by inquisitive patients are astounding. Who knew so many home products could be involved in tick removal? Fortunately, no matter whose great grandmother used to do what with something or other, everything can be reduced to two simple categories of wrong things.

The thinking behind most wrong way removals is to attack the tick with an irritant of some sort that will compel the tick to let go and fall off. The other primary thought operates on the belief the tick will be deprived of oxygen and die. Here is a more generalized list.

Do not try to remove ticks by using:
a hot item, such as a lit (or extinguished) match or a cigarette,
sports/arthritis creams (Ben Gay, Icy Hot, etc.)
kerosene, paint thinner
isopropyl (“rubbing”) alcohol
liquid soap
Kayro syrup (it’s really thick!)
cooking oil
petroleum jelly,
nail polish

Irritants, such as heat or sports creams, potentially do more harm than good as they can induce the tick to vomit (yes, you read that right, vomit) the contents of its stomach into your blood stream. This was how flea bites spread the Black Plague in the European middle ages: vomiting into the human host’s body while the parasites were feeding. The same trick works with ticks and this is a primary means of causing diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Lyme Disease to enter the human bloodstream. As for the suffocation techniques, they too, are faulty. Using thick or drying items like syrup, petroleum jelly or nail polish accomplishes nothing as the tick has more than enough oxygen to finish the feeding job and fall off the host’s body. These products may also induce a healthy bit of tick vomiting. And again, who wants tick vomit running around their bloodstream?

The correct way to remove a tick involves using a pair of tweezers or the like placed at the base of the tick where it enters the body and gently pulling it loose. Gently is the operative word here, as you do not want to rip the head off, leaving it lodged under the skin. Further, you do not want to squeeze the body of the tick at any time as this, too, will induce the tick to vomit blood and tick enzymes and disease into the blood stream. Several manufacturers make tick removal devices, one of which is demonstrated on a real tick bite in the video above.

Once the tick has been removed, the most effective disposal is to flush it. Your Intrepid Pharmacist has tried washing them down the sink on a couple of occasions and a half hour later they were back in the sink and trying to crawl out. Tick bodies, like flea bodies are fairly difficult to crush.

Remember that tick season runs through the autumn so if you are out doors, make sure you check yourself thoroughly for ticks and remove them safely as outlined above. Remember, too, that pets can harbor ticks. The same removal rules apply to animals as they do to humans. Even if your pet has been dosed with a Frontline type of repellant, the tick still has time to crawl off the pet and on to you.


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