The Worst Ways to Remove a Tick

Popular Tick Removal Methods -- That Don't Actually Work

The proper way to remove a tick.
The proper way to remove a tick. Ingram Publishing/Vetta/Getty Images

Is there anything worse than finding a tick embedded in your skin? Besides the ick factor, tick bites are a definite cause for concern, because many ticks transmit disease-causing pathogens. In general, the faster you remove the tick, the less your chance of getting Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of bad information being shared about how to remove ticks from your skin.

Some people swear that these methods work, but scientific studies have proven them wrong. If you have a tick embedded in your skin, please read carefully. These are the 5 worst ways to remove a tick.

Burn It With a Hot Match

Why people think it works: The working theory here is that if you hold something hot against the tick's body, it will become so uncomfortable it will let go and flee.

Dr. Glen Needham of Ohio State University found that holding a hot match against an embedded tick did nothing to convince the tick to let go. Needham also noted that this tick removal strategy actually increases your risk of pathogen exposure. Heating the tick can cause it to rupture, increasing your exposure to any diseases it may carry. Also, heat makes the tick salivate, and sometimes even regurgitate, again increasing your exposure to pathogens in the tick's body. And do I need to mention that you can burn yourself trying to hold a hot match against a tiny tick on your skin?

Smother It With Petroleum Jelly

Why people think it works: If you completely cover the tick with something thick and gooey like petroleum jelly, it won't be able to breathe and will have to back out to keep from suffocating.

This is an interesting idea that has some basis in reality, since ticks breathe via spiracles and not their mouths.

But whoever hatched this theory didn't have a complete understanding of tick physiology. Ticks, according to Needham, have extremely slow respiration rates. When a tick is moving about, it may only breathe 15 times in an hour; while resting comfortably on a host, doing nothing more than feeding, it breathes as little as 4 times per hour. So smothering it with petroleum jelly could take a very long time. It's a lot quicker to simply pluck the tick off with tweezers.

Coat It With Nail Polish

Why people think it works: This folklore method follows the same reasoning as the petroleum jelly technique. If you completely cover the tick in nail polish, it will start to suffocate and give up its grip.

Smothering a tick with nail polish is just as ineffective, if not more so. Needham determined that once the nail polish hardened, the tick became immobilized and was therefore unable to retreat from the host. If you coat a tick with nail polish, you are simply securing it in place.

Pour Rubbing Alcohol on It

Why people think it works: Maybe because they read it in Readers' Digest? We're not sure of their source for this tidbit, but Readers' Digest has claimed "ticks hate the taste of rubbing alcohol." Perhaps they think a tick doused in rubbing alcohol will loosen its grip in order to spit and cough in disgust?

However, rubbing alcohol isn't without merit when it comes to removing ticks. It is good practice to clean the affected area with rubbing alcohol to prevent infection of the tick bite wound. But that, according to Dr. Needham, is the sole benefit of putting rubbing alcohol on a tick. It does nothing to convince the tick to go.

Unscrew It

Why people think it works: The theory here is that by grabbing and twisting the tick, it will somehow be forced to lose its grip and pop free of your skin.

Dr. Elisa McNeill of Texas A&M University has an amusing retort for this tick removal method – tick mouthparts are not threaded (like screws)! You cannot unscrew a tick. The reason a tick can maintain such a good hold on your skin is because it has lateral barbs extending from its mouthparts to anchor it in place.

Hard ticks also produce a cement of sorts to fasten themselves down. So all that twisting isn't going to get you anywhere. If you twist an embedded tick, you will most likely succeed in separating its body from its head, and the head will remain stuck in your skin where it can become infected.

Now that you know the wrong ways to remove ticks, learn how to remove a tick safely and effectively (from the Centers for Disease Control). Or better yet, follow these tips for avoiding ticks so you never have to remove one from your skin.

Sources

  • Evaluation of Five Popular Methods of Tick Removal, Glen R. Needham, Ph.D., Ohio State University. Journal of Pediatrics, Vol. 75, No. 6, June 1985.
  • Physician's Guide to Arthropods of Medical Importance, 6th edition, by Jerome Goddard.
  • Tick Removal, Centers for Disease Control website. Accessed online May 27, 2014.
  • Ticks and Tick Bites, Dr. Elisa McNeill, Texas A&M University. Accessed online May 27, 2014.
  • Tick Bits, Kansas State University. Accessed online May 27, 2014.
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Hadley, Debbie. "The Worst Ways to Remove a Tick." ThoughtCo, Apr. 26, 2018, thoughtco.com/wrong-ways-to-remove-a-tick-1968605. Hadley, Debbie. (2018, April 26). The Worst Ways to Remove a Tick. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/wrong-ways-to-remove-a-tick-1968605 Hadley, Debbie. "The Worst Ways to Remove a Tick." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/wrong-ways-to-remove-a-tick-1968605 (accessed May 25, 2018).