Should I use a lit cigarette to burn an attached tick off of my leg?
There is as much mythology about removing a tick as there is on catching a bluefish.
Over the years, I have known a guy to have burned a tick off his penis with a lit cigarette and a cut-happy surgeon to have cut a tick out of an upper arm, leaving a large divot. C’mon folks, it is just a tick bite. It is not like getting bitten by a taipan (a snake with a highly lethal bite) in the Australian outback, where there is some justification in immediately amputating the bitten body part. An attached tick does not need to be covered in Vaseline, allegedly because it suffocates the tick gradually so that it won’t get panicked and transmit microbes; this is baloney, the tick is not consciously transmitting and nothing you do will speed up or slow down the process. Ticks do not need to be poisoned by kerosene; nor do you need to buy a special tool that rotates the tick counterclockwise. Just pull it out. Use your fingers if you can. Even better, use some fine forceps or tweezers and grasp the head as close to the skin as possible. Pull steadily upwards. It does not matter if you leave the “head” in, it will be walled off or work itself out like a splinter. You cannot squeeze a disease-causing microbe into you. The tick has a valve in its feeding tube (25-cent word: pharyngeal valve) that only allows fluids to flow inward so that there is no regurgitation into the feeding cavity. The microbes that cause disease are delivered in tick spit. As you spit out your morning coffee thinking of ticks spitting into you, it should be noted that whereas our spit is a crude mix of starch digesting enzymes, mucus, water, and bacteria, tick spit has evolved over millions of years to contain chemicals that prevent blood from coagulating, immune cells from attacking the tick’s internal parts, and preventing inflammation and pain. This is why some of us believe that ticks are more highly evolved than those other notorious bloodsuckers…lawyers.
Tick bites can be prevented. Wear repellent or treat your clothing. Take a shower. Check for ticks. Visit the MV Tick Borne Disease Initiative website (www.mvboh.org) for tips on prevention.
Sam Telford is Professor of Infectious Disease and Global Health at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. He is a member of the MV Tick Borne Disease Initiative, which is sponsored by the Island-wide boards of health.