A comprehensive guide on how to remove a tick with tweezers and without tweezers.
Including prevention tips, faq's and common mistakes made.
Updated: June 25th, 2020
If you are hiking anywhere in the eastern and upper midwestern United States, you are going to encounter ticks. You'll find them riding along on your pack, crawling on your clothing or embedded in your skin.
Ticks are more than a nuisance - they also can carry some seriously nasty stuff that can cause lifelong illnesses.
Because the risk of encountering ticks is high, you should be prepared to deal with ticks - preventing exposure to them as much as possible as well as know how to remove a tick from a person.
Removing a tick using tweezers (or the pliers end of a multitool) is the recommended method for removing a tick. It's an effective way to remove the tick without leaving behind the head or having the tick regurgitate pathogen-filled saliva back into the bite area.
Step 1: Grab the head as close to the skin as possible.
Step 2: Pull upward, steadily at a straight angle until removed.
Step 3: Rinse the area with soap and water.
Optional: Save the tick to test for Lyme disease later. You can store it in a plastic bag or stick it to a piece of tape.
a) If the head gets stuck. Sometimes a tick is so firmly attached that you accidentally pull off the body, leaving the head embedded in your skin. In this case, you should repeat steps 1 to 3 until the head is removed. If you absolutely cannot dig it out of your skin, you can leave it there, and your body should expel it as it heals... just like a splinter.
b) If you experience a rash (or fever). Most tick bites may be swollen and itchy for several days after the bite. Monitor the bite area for any signs of Lyme disease for the next few weeks. If rashes appear within weeks of the removal and/or you start getting headaches, muscle pain, and fever - consult a doctor immediately. Not all infectious tick bites produce a rash, so pay attention to any unusual symptoms and seek medical attention immediately.
*A tick needs to be attached to you for at least 24 hours and possibly even up to 48 hours before any disease is transmitted.*
Sometimes tweezers are not always handy outside so you must improvise. You can use your fingers and fingernails to grasp a tick as close to the skin as possible. If you have a pocket knife or a credit card, you can use those to help give your fingers a hard edge.
Do not use folklore remedies like burning, nail polish remover, cotton ball, peppermint, vaseline, and others to remove a tick. You want to remove a tick as quickly as possible and not wait for the tick to release its grasp. These methods increase the chance the tick will regurgitate its disease-containing saliva into the bite.
There are a variety of tick removal devices available that can make it easier to remove a tick. Though effective, these are single-use tools and add extra weight to your backpack. Tweezers also add additional weight, but they are useful for more than just tick removal.
The best way to avoid a tick-borne disease is to stay away from tick-infested areas, but that is not always possible. If you are traveling in a high tick area, you can prevent tick exposure with a few simple steps.
TIP #1 - STICK TO THE MIDDLE OF THE TRAIL
You can avoid ticks by walking in the middle of a trail and staying away from high grasses, leaf litter, and brushy areas. Ticks hang on the brush and, using small hooks, latch onto your clothing. Avoid the brush... and avoid the ticks.
TIP #2 - WEAR LONG CLOTHING
Wear long clothing and tuck your pants into your socks. It looks dorky, but it prevents ticks from crawling up your sock and onto the skin of your legs.
TIP #3 - USE PERMETHRIN
You can treat your clothing, shoes, and hiking gear with permethrin which incapacitates ticks on contact. You can purchase clothing that is already treated with this insecticide or buy liquid permethrin and apply to your clothing yourself. The permethrin will last about six to seven washes or about a month before re-treatment is needed. Insect repellant such as DEET or picaridin can also help, but is not as effective as permethrin and should be used as a second line of defense.
TIP #4 - SPOT CHECK
Strip down and check those tight spots at the end of every day you're outside. You might find a tick crawling before it has latched on to your skin.
At the end of each day, you should check yourself head to toe for ticks. Make it a part of your nightly routine and ask for help in those hard-to-see areas, like your back and shoulders.
Image Source: 2017 cdc.gov
There is more than one type of tick in the woods. In fact, there are at least nine different types of ticks in the United States, but not all of them commonly bite people. You hear the most about the dog tick because it is so common, and the deer tick because it causes Lyme disease. There's also the Lone Star tick which is not as abundant as the deer and dog tick but is known for its aggressive bites.
1. Deer Tick or Black-Legged Tick (Ixodes scapularis): The deer tick is found mostly in mixed deciduous forests, especially where the primary hosts, deer, and mice, are abundant. They are most commonly found in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and mid-Atlantic and carry Lyme Disease, Babesiosis, and Anaplasmosis. They are present in the spring, summer, fall, but can persist into the winter as long as temperatures remain above freezing.
2. American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis): The American dog tick prefers grassy areas with little to no tree cover. Grassy fields, grass-lined walkways, and hiking trails are preferred habitats. Found primarily in the eastern half of the United States, the dog tick is most active during the spring and summer and has a wide variety of hosts. It is a resilient tick, surviving up to two years when no host is available. It can transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia.
3. Lone Star (Amblyomma americanum): Lone Star ticks are found primarily in woodlands with dense undergrowth and plentiful wildlife. They are located in the eastern United States but are more common down south. Lone Star ticks are active from early spring through late fall. All stages are aggressive biters, but the nymphs typically do not carry disease. They transmit diseases such as Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). Some people reportedly develop an unusual allergic reaction to red meat after a bite.
© California Department of Public Health via Fairfax County (CC BY-ND 2.0)
How likely am I to get Lyme Disease?
The likelihood of you contracting Lyme Disease is based on three factors:
Location. Where were you when you got bitten? Ticks in certain regions have a higher likelihood of carrying the disease.
Duration. How long was it attached to you? Again, it is much higher if over 24-48 hours.
Species. Only black legged ticks carry Lyme Disease.
Where do ticks like to bite humans?
A tick can bite you anywhere, but it prefers warm, moist areas. You're likely to find a tick in your armpits, behind your knees, around your ears, or in your hair. Therefore, these should be the first places you check to see if you have a tick bite.
When and where are ticks found in the US?
Ticks are found across the United States but are most abundant in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and mid-Atlantic. They are active in the spring, summer, and fall, depending on the species.
How do ticks grow?
Ticks come in a variety of sizes based upon their stage of development. Ticks go through four life stages that can take up to three years to complete. Ticks start as an egg which hatches as a tiny larva, grows into a small nymph, and finally develops into a full-sized adult. Once a tick hatches from an egg, it needs blood to survive, so every stage from the larvae to an adult is capable of biting you. Ticks also vary in size from species to species.
Where do ticks hide?
Ticks will hide in leaf litter waiting for mice and small rodents or will climb grasses in search of larger hosts like deer and people. Contrary to popular belief, ticks do not fall from trees. If you pick up a tick while hiking, it will crawl around your skin until it finds a suitable place to bite you.
© Megan Smith (CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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