When I was at summer camp, ticks were everywhere, including on me. I was told that the proper way to remove a tick was to light a match, blow it out and touch the hot tip to the exposed part of the tick. The idea was that the tick would find that uncomfortable and simply back out of the skin.
It sounded good, except for two problems: It does not reliably work, and it may make matters worse. It is a myth perpetuated by generations of campers, families, friends, and maybe even the occasional misguided camp nurse. The problem with the hot match approach is that the tick may burrow more deeply into the skin and the match can burn the skin; never mind that kids at camp should not have access to matches in the first place. In addition, irritating the tick in this way may provoke it to release more saliva or its intestinal contents, increasing the chances of transmitting infection.
Other unreliable and techniques that cannot be recommended include dousing the tick in vegetable oil or petroleum jelly.
To remove a tick safely and reliably, experts suggest the following:
- With fine tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible; avoid squeezing the tick's body and don't use your bare hands to do this.
- While applying constant pressure, pull the tick away from the skin.
- Wash the site well with soap and water, alcohol and/or an iodine-containing cleanser.
How To Avoid Ticks
The only foolproof way to avoid ticks altogether is to avoid those areas where they may be encountered — generally, the high brush or grass of wooded areas, especially in the late spring and summer months when diseases such as Lyme are most commonly transmitted. Repellants that contains DEET, applied to the skin and/or clothes, are effective at keeping ticks off of your skin. Examine and brush your dog so that any ticks your dog has can be removed before they can bite you. In some areas, public works projects to relocate deer, clear brush, or eliminate mouse populations have been considered or undertaken to reduce exposure to ticks.
How To Avoid Tick Bites (If You Cannot Avoid the Ticks)
If you find yourself in an area where ticks are common, wear long pants and tuck them into your socks. Wear white, so that ticks can be more easily seen if crawling on you. Examine your skin when you return from the woods and brush off any ticks you see walking about — removing them before they attach and bite may prevent disease; for example, in order to transmit Lyme disease, a tick must attach for at least 24 hours. Repellants are effective not only at helping you to reduce tick exposure but also to reduce the chance that they will bite.
As each spring and summer approaches, concerns about tick-borne illnesses will surely increase. You are not powerless. Take precautions to avoid ticks, tick bites, and the diseases they can cause. If you see a tick, remove it promptly and properly. And keep the matches away from the kids.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.