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Southern traditions about removing ticks all wrong
By Nancy C. Hinkle
University of Georgia

Southern lore offers many ways to remove a tick you find attached to you: Smother it with petroleum jelly, kerosene or nail polish remover. Burn it with a match. Twist it counterclockwise to unscrew it. Awful things happen, they say, if you leave a tick's head in your skin to "fester."

They're all wrong.

For starters, don't worry about breaking off a tick's head. It can't transmit disease organisms. But if a tick is aggravated, it will vomit into your bloodstream, so keep it calm until you can remove it. Don't ever put any irritating compounds on it.

Do, however, use tweezers to remove it as soon as you can. A tick is like a balloon attached to a hypodermic needle, so pressing its body can push tick juice into your bloodstream.

Remember the tweezers

To avoid giving yourself a tick "shot," position the tweezers as close to your skin as you can. Then pinch its head, preventing regurgitation, and pull.

Afterwards, wash the wound and apply antibiotic cream.

It's normal for a red, irritated area and scab to persist for days or even weeks. It's purely a localized reaction to the tick's saliva, not a sign of disease.

However, keep the tick for a couple of weeks, just in case you later come down with a tick-borne disease. Don't flush it. Ticks won't drown. Instead, put it in a zipper-lock bag in the refrigerator, with the date noted. If you develop a rash or flu-like symptoms later, you'll have the tick for examination.

Better yet...

A better way to handle ticks is to avoid them in the first place.

When I'm hiking or working in a tick-infested habitat, I tuck my pants down into my socks. Ticks always crawl upward, so this prevents their getting under my clothing to my skin. If they have to crawl outside my clothes, I can see ticks and remove them before they can attach.

If you're outdoors a lot in tick habitats, you may want to treat your clothing with an effective repellent. Sawyer, Coulston and other brands of permethrin spray are sold to treat clothing only. Never use these products on your skin.

To treat your clothes, lay your pants, socks, jacket, etc., on newspaper and spray them liberally. Then turn them over and spray the other side. Leave them to dry overnight. In the morning, you'll have good tick protection.

This permethrin treatment remains active and effective for weeks. Hunters and hikers often treat their garments and then wear the same clothes every time they go anywhere ticks may be.

You can treat exposed parts of your body with DEET repellents, which offer some tick protection, too. Follow the label directions. And be particularly careful using DEET around your eyes, mouth and mucous membranes and anywhere on children.

Flying ticks?

Ticks can't jump or fly and don't live in trees. They're on the ground and at the tips of low-growing plants, where they're most likely to latch onto shoes and ankles. That's why you need to treat shoes, socks and pants cuffs with a repellent and keep ticks from crawling up to bare skin.

Despite all precautions, you may occasionally get a tick on you, so at the end of the day, do a "tick check."

Strip down and use a mirror to examine all of your body. Pay close attention to your waist and wherever your clothes fit snugly. Feel carefully through your hairline, too. Ticks often attach along the edge of the scalp.

If a tick is attached to your skin less than 12 hours, it has little or no chance to transmit a disease.

Avoid ticks if you can. If you can't, at least keep them happy until you can sneak up on them and pull them off.

(Nancy Hinkle is a Cooperative Extension entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Nancy Hinkle is a Cooperative Extension entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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