Tick ​​removal: what’s the best way to remove them?

If you’ve had a tick before, you know how uncomfortable it is when one of those little bloodsuckers starts making a meal out of you.

Most of the time, tick bites are just plain annoying – they can hurt a little, itch for a while, and possibly swell.

But ticks can pose a serious health risk. While there is still a debate in Australia about whether or not you can get Lyme disease from ticks, ticks can cause allergic reactions, infections and, very rarely, paralysis in humans.

A new report says there is no evidence that ticks can give you Lyme disease in Australia, but confirms that ticks can spread infections, some of which have yet to be identified. Ticks can also cause allergic reactions and very rarely lead to paralysis.

The problem with ticks

Dr. Cameron Webb, a medical entomologist at NSW Health Pathology Westmead Hospital, says allergic reactions are the most common health problem related to tick bites in Australia.

Sometimes these reactions are life threatening. A study from a hospital on Sydney’s northern beaches, where these ticks are found in large numbers, found that 34 of the 500 people who presented with tick bites had anaphylaxis.

Tick ​​facts

  • 70 species in Australia
  • Ticks are small eight-legged arthropods
  • Mouth parts resemble a spiked sword and pierce through the host’s skin
  • Inject saliva containing toxins into their host when they feed
  • Paralytic tick, Ixodes holocyclus, most common
  • Paralysis tick found on the east coast of Australia – from Victoria to far north of Queensland

If you bother the tick – by scratching it or trying to remove it – and injecting more of its allergen-containing saliva, your chances of having a serious allergic reaction are increased.

But there is very little hard data that could help determine the best method of tick removal to prevent allergic reactions.

“There have been a number of ‘urban myths’ in the past – substances that you put on ticks to remove them, everything from a burning match to kerosene to nail polish remover,” says Dr. Webb.

“The problem is, the tick just gets aroused, and the more excited it is, the more likely it is to inject saliva and toxin into the bite site.

“What’s worse, when you try to remove a tick with your fingers, you’re actually just squeezing it together and potentially squeezing more poison into itself.”

While paralytic ticks can cause paralysis if they stick for long periods of time, it is more of a problem for dogs and other pets. Check with your local veterinarian about the best ways to protect your pets from ticks.

There are also tick-borne pathogens like rickettsiae, but Dr. Webb says that “there is such a risk associated with allergic reactions that protection against that threat protects against these other pathogens”.

What is the advice?

A quick online search will yield results from reputable sources that say you should pull out a tick with fine forceps (like pointed tweezers) so that you can get the animal as close to the surface of the skin as possible.

The health department recommends this method, saying that it is important not to crush the tick’s body during the process (which is easier said than done) as this increases the likelihood that more toxin will be injected.

It also states that the tick “can be sprayed with an aerosol insect repellent that contains pyrethrin or a pyrethroid chemical” before removal.

However, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) does not agree with the method of removing the forceps. If you have ever tried to remove a tick, you will know how difficult it is to do it without squeezing or disrupting the tick’s body in any way.

If you are not allergic to ticks, ASCIA recommends using ether-containing sprays to kill the tick and then physically removing the tick as soon as possible.

The following recommendations apply to allergy sufferers:

  • Apply a plan of action and EpiPen
  • Kill the tick with a product that will freeze it quickly
  • Go to a hospital or similar safe place to have the tick removed.

Which products do ticks freeze quickly? Well, ASCIA recommends Aerostart (a spray used to start car engines), ether-based sprays (like those that freeze off warts), or liquid nitrogen (which you will need to access through your doctor).

If you have a known allergy or are first noticing a reaction, ASCIA recommends urgently seeing a doctor to kill and remove the tick (unless it has previously been determined that you can safely do the process yourself).


So why the conflicting advice?

It’s probably no surprise that our federal health department doesn’t recommend using a highly flammable automotive product to kill ticks embedded in your skin, especially since there’s no research to support this use.

But ASCIA and other experts, including Dr. Webb, say these methods have been used safely in clinical settings.

Dr. Webb says it is a case of clinical experience encountering a lack of specific scientific research. But many of the online tick removal recommendations do not address the species found in Australia and their health issues.

“There are different types of ticks in Australia than in North America and Europe,” he says.

For this reason, Dr. Webb believes that we should all follow ASCIA’s advice and use ether-based aerosol sprays to kill ticks, although he admits that some of them are not registered for use in humans.

Avoid them in the first place

But everyone agrees on one thing: it is best to avoid tick bites first. This is especially important if you have an allergy, but a good idea for all of us.

So the next time you go anywhere where you might come across a tick, you can decrease your chances of finding one by:

  • Wear light-colored long-sleeved shirts and long pants (ticks are easier to see on light-colored clothing)
  • Tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into long socks
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat
  • Before entering the house, brush clothing to remove ticks
  • Using an insect repellent with DEET
  • When entering, watch carefully for ticks, including your neck, scalp, groin, and armpits.

Health in your inbox

Get the latest health news and information from across the ABC.

More info

Comments are closed.