When you spot a tick on you, it is really important that you grasp it by the head and pull straight out. Otherwise, you risk the tick head getting left in your skin.
Even when you do follow proper tick removal methods, the head can still sometimes get stuck in your skin. This is what happened to me after a recent camping trip. The little bugger had bit deep into the soft tissue in my armpit. When my husband went to pull him out, the tick head broke off and was left in my skin.
Here’s how I got the tick head out of my skin (as well as what didn’t work to remove it).
*Never twist a tick head or use one of those tools for removing ticks from dogs. Nor should you ever use things like a hot match or essential oils to remove a tick. You risk causing the tick to regurgitate it’s stomach contents into you, thus increasing your chances of getting Lyme disease! Read about tick removal tools here.
How Do You Know the Tick Head Is Stuck or Out?
Tick heads are tiny. If the tick head is left in your skin, you will see a little black dot.
You might also have some inflammation around the tick head. In my case, I was surprised how irritated my skin got. But a lot of the irritation was probably from my unsuccessful attempts to dig the tick head out.
The photos below show tick heads stuck in the skin (the first photo is the one stuck in me). See how tiny the little black dots are.
Method 1: Using an Extractor
If you go hiking in places where there are a lot of ticks, you might want to carry an extractor tool with you. These tools are basically suction tubes which draw venom out of your skin. They are mostly marketed towards snake, bee and scorpion bites, but can work for ticks too.
Note the extractor shouldn’t be used to remove a tick. You’ll still need a tick-removal tool like tweezers. However, you can use the extractor immediately afterwards to reduce the chances of getting Lyme disease. And, if the tick head is still stuck in your skin, it might be able to pull it out.
To use the extractor for tick bites, apply the smallest tube gently. Then apply suction. Yes, there will be some blood and fluid.
*You can get the Sawyer Extraction Tubes here at REI. They currently cost about $17.
**By the time this tool reaches you, it will probably be too late to get the stuck tick head out. But it’s still a good tool to have around for the next time you get bit by a tick.
***REI also has permethrin to repel ticks. It can be sprayed directly on your clothes or you can even do a permethrin “wash” for your clothes. See the options here.
Method 2: Removing Tick Head Like a Splinter
Well, I’m pretty damn good at removing splinters. So, this is what I first tried to remove the stuck tick head.
It did NOT work.
After I finally got the tick head out (and looked at it under a microscope, because I’m just that nerdy 🙂 ), I had a “Duh” moment and realized why it wouldn’t have worked:
Ticks have jaws like barbed wire.
The part that they stick into your skin is called a hypostome. You can see in the picture of the tick head magnified to 450x the nasty barbs (below). Those will NOT slide out like a splinter.
**If you still want to try this method, only try it a few times! If it doesn’t come out right away, give up.
I’m sure some people might have luck with this method, but you’ll really have to dig a trench into your skin. I turned the bite site into chop suey and still it didn’t come out. All I really did was (as Birding says here) set myself up for a potential secondary infection. So, seriously, if the head doesn’t come out right away, give up before you make a nasty wound in your skin.
Method 3: Cut the Tick Head Out
Because of those nasty barbs on the tick’s mouth, you probably won’t be able to just slide it out like a splinter. Instead, you’ll have to remove all of the skin that the tick’s mouth is embedded into. Yes, that means cutting a chunk of your skin out.
Obviously, this can create some problems: You could get an infection. The area might get inflamed and irritated. And it hurts to cut your skin. So, I don’t recommend this method.
If you do want to cut the tick head out, then use some very sharp, pointy, CLEAN scissors. The video below shows how it is done. He’s using pliers in the video. I’d recommend using nail cuticle scissors instead as they are pointier and probably sharper than your tools.
Method 4: Wait
I am not a patient person. Nor did I like the idea of having a tick head stuck in my body (gross!). But the smartest way to remove an embedded tick head stuck in your skin is to simply wait.
Your skin will eventually push the tick head out.
But isn’t it dangerous to leave a tick head in your skin???
As the NY health department says here, “The mouthparts alone cannot transmit Lyme disease, because the infectious body of the tick is no longer attached. The mouthparts can be left alone.”
In some cases, leaving the tick head in your skin can result in an infection or irritation. However, this is not common. Thus, major health agencies say to leave the tick head alone and let the area heal on its own. (Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Since I’m so impatient, I tore off the scab a few times hoping that the tick head would come out with the scab. It didn’t. So don’t be impatient like me and try this.
How long will it take for the tick head to come out on its own?
In my case, it took 2 weeks before the tick head came out. By this point, my skin had pushed it far enough towards the surface that I was able to remove it by scratching the area.
I’ve since talked to a few other people who got tick heads stuck in their skin and it also took about 2 weeks for the head to come out. However, it could take longer or shorter depending on where the tick bit you (my bite was in the armpit, so the tick was able to get really deep into the skin) and how quickly your skin heals.
1. Keep the Bite Area Clean
Whether you dig/cut the tick head out or (smartly) wait for it to come out on its own, you will need to keep the area clean.
Treat the bite area as you would any small wound: Clean it thoroughly with soap and water, then apply an antibiotic wound ointment like Bacitracin. You do have this in your first aid kit, right? If not, get it here. Or get a stocked first aid kit here (the one in the link has antibiotic ointment and other vital first aid supplies).
2. Monitor the Site
There’s no need to panic if you got bit by a tick. Not all ticks carry Lyme disease. And, if the tick was removed within 24 hours of biting you, then it wasn’t embedded long enough to transfer Lyme disease (which is why it is so important to check for ticks after going outdoors).
If you are really concerned about Lyme disease — such as you have a compromised immune system or a small child is in question — then you might take the tick body to be tested.
Otherwise, just pay attention to the wound site and how you feel. If you have any of these symptoms, go to your doctor immediately:
- A rash around the bite site which gets larger (it isn’t always shaped like a bull’s eye – see picture’s here)
- Rashes on other places on your body
- Feeling very tired
- Achy, stiff joints
- Flu-like symptoms
- Night sweats or sleep disturbances
*Not everyone with Lyme disease gets a rash. Further, Lyme isn’t the only disease that ticks can give humans. So, if you have any symptoms that seem out of the ordinary, see your doctor!