There’s no way to completely avoid ticks hiking through the outdoors. All it takes is a quick walk through tall grass for a tick to latch on and start digging into your skin. Ticks aren’t dangerous if you remove them fast, but you have to know what you’re doing to get out the entire body. You don’t want to accidentally leave the head of a tick behind and not realize it. So what does the head of a tick look like?
Ticks are tiny little parasitic arachnids with sharp barbed wire like mouth called the Hypostome that latches onto the skin. It’s tiny head and mouth will break off in your skin if you don’t properly pull out the tick. You can spot a leftover tick head in your skin by looking for a tiny black or brown dot in the middle of the bite area.
Removing a ticks body is a fairly simple process, but you can easily snap the ticks head off and leave the barbed mouth stuck under your skin if you’re not careful. In the rest of this post I’ll explain in detail what the head of a tick looks like in your skin, go over the different parts of a ticks head, teach you the right way to remove a tick, and how to pull the head out if you accidentally leave it behind.
What Does The Head Of A Tick Look Like?
Ticks range from 1/16 of an inch in their nymphal immature age up to about 1/8 of an inch as an adult. Some species are slightly bigger and they get engorged after a blood meal, but even a full sized tick is tiny. Their heads are only a small fraction of a ticks total body size making up no more than 5-10 percent of their body.
A ticks tiny heads can easily break off during the tick removal process and stay embedded in your skin. To make matters worse their mouth (called the hyposteme) is shaped like barbed wire catching on skin as your pulling out. Look at the picture of a microscopic tick above and imagine pulling on those barbs latched into your skin.
The Hyposteme spikes extend as the ticks trying to feed and only retract after they’re done with a blood meal. Trying to pull out a ticks mouth is like ripping a hook out of a fish. It grabs ahold of the skin and the only way to get it out is by ripping through the skin.
It doesn’t take much to break off a ticks head and mouth leaving it buried in your skin. Even a perfectly performed tick pull can leave behind parts of a ticks head and mouth. A tick’s head will eventually work it’s way out on its own, but it can lead to infection if you’re not careful.
What Does A Tick Head Look Like In The Skin?
You should be able to easily tell if there’s any part of the tick left in your skin. A ticks head is ridiculously small, but there will be a tiny black or brown spot (depending on the species) in the center of bite area. Look at the picture above and notice the small black speck in the center of the inflamed area.
That’s the head of a tick that you should try to remove. I’ll give you detailed directions below, but take a sterilize the wound and a sharp pair of tweezers with rubbing alcohol and try to pull out the head. You can use a needle or sharp knife if that doesn’t seem to be working.
Don’t try to dig until you end up bleeding or damaging the surrounding skin. That can be more harmful than leaving the head where it’s at and letting it naturally work its way out. Ticks carry lots of germs and you don’t want to accidentally introduce them into your body, by piercing your skin.
It’s not a big deal if you can’t get the head out! Wash the area with soap and water, rubbing alcohol, apply Neosporin, and cover the bite with a Band-Aid. That should hopefully prevent infection until the head naturally works its way out.
Is A Ticks Head Stuck In Your Skin Dangerous?
There’s always a chance a tick’s head will break off when you’re pulling it out and get trapped in your skin. Following tip removal directions (explained below) with a sharp pair of tweezers or tick removal tool will reduce the chances, but it may still happen.
They actually sell special tick removal tweezers to pry up the body and pull out any left over head and mouth pieces. I deal with a lot of ticks working outside everyday and camping/backpacking on the weekends so I bought a set of TickEase Tweezers (pictured above). You use the pry bar side on the right to easily pull the tick out from the base and the sharp point tweezers to pull out any leftover head and mouth pieces. It’s ridiculously easy to use and almost foolproof!
A tick removal tool will significantly reduce the chance of leaving behind a ticks head, but it can still happen with deeply buried in ticks. So what do you do if a ticks head and mouth break off in your skin? Is it dangerous to leave a ticks head buried in your skin?
Leaving a ticks head buried in your skin isn’t that big of a deal. It won’t increase your risk of catching tickborne illnesses like Lyme Disease, but you still want to try and remove every piece of the tick. It won’t continue to pass disease into your bloodstream through saliva, but a ticks head carries lots of germs.
You’re dealing with pathogens from every animal that it’s fed off of throughout it’s lifetime so you shouldn’t definitely try to get everything out. Leaving pieces of a tick embedded in your skin can lead to serious infection.
I’ll go over removing a ticks head briefly below, but you might want to check out my post that goes into detail about pulling out a ticks head that’s stuck in your skin. It’s just like pulling out a splinter and all it takes is a pair of sharp tweezers and possibly a needle to loosen the mouth.
How To Remove A Tick Without Leaving Behind The Head
Removing a tick is a fairly straightforward process. All you need is a pair of sharp pointed tweezers or a tick removal tool. I use TickEase Dual-Tipped Tick Remover Tweezers. Just pry up the tick with the tick removal tool and use the sharp tipped tweezers on the other end to remove leftover pieces of the ticks head.
Tick removal tools make pulling out ticks easy, but any pair of sharp tipped tweezers will work. I’m assuming you don’t have a tick removal tool so here’s how you would remove a tick with tweezers.
- Clean Your Tweezers: Sterilize your tweezers by dipping them in rubbing alcohol or wiping them down with alcohol wipes.
- Grab The Tick: Use your tweezers to grab the head of the tick. Go as close to your skin as possible.
- Pull Upward With Steady Pressure: Pull upward on the ticks head/body with steady even pressure. Don’t twist the tweezers or jerk the tick, because it can lead to the head and mouth parts breaking off in your skin. If the head breaks off you should try to remove it with tweezers or follow any of the removal methods below. If you can’t remove the mouth easily it’s best to leave it alone and let the skin heal.
- Clean The Area: After removing the tick thorougly clean the area with soap and water. Follow that up by wiping down the area with rubbing alcohol or an alcohol pad. Repeat the process everyday until the swelling and signs of inflammation go away. See a doctor if a rash forms or you notice signs of infection.
- Save The Tick: Never crush a tick with your fingers. Place the tick in rubbing alcohol to instantly kill it (ticks can survive in water). Store the tick in an airtight container like a prescription pill bottle or wrap it in tape. The CDC recommends keeping ticks for 30 days so they can be tested if you run into complications.
There’s a good chance you remove the entire tick including the head if you follow those directions. Unfortunately, sometimes a ticks head will break off in your skin even with perfect pulling technique. I’ll explain how to remove a ticks head and mouth in the next section, but you can check out my detailed post on removing a ticks head here.
Removing A Ticks Head
A ticks mouth really digs deep into your skin so they can be a serious pain to remove. I recommend treating the ticks head like you’re trying to remove a splinter. You need to dig at the head with a needle, knife, or any other sharp object to loosen the grip and then pull out the head with tweezers.
Pulling out an embedded tick head is easier said than done. You really need to dig at it working at the surrounding skin to loosen the hold. At that point you may be able to pull out the mouth, but I give it a 50/50 chance of working.
A lot of people recommend the Bug Bite Thing Suction Tool for removing tick heads. The “Bug Bite Thing” uses suction to pull on the ticks head drawing it out of your skin. It will loosen up the buried head and then you can use tweezers to hopefully grab any pieces still lodged in your skin.
You can also cut out the tick head using sterilized cuticle scissors, but that’s painful and could possibly lead to infection. If you can’t get the tick head out with conventional methods it’s better to just leave it in. The head should slowly work its way out of your skin within 2 weeks and you’ll be able to grab it with tweezers.
Watch Out For Signs Of Lyme Disease
Ticks carry a wide range of tickborne illness, but Lyme Disease is by far the most common. Catching and removing a tick early will significantly lower your chance of catching anything, but you should always watch out for signs of infection.
Lyme disease leaves behind a telltale bullseye rash (pictured above) in 80% of cases so that’s the main thing you need to look out for. The bullseye rash is the most common, but any type of rash is a cause for concern. You should also watch out for common signs of infection like fever, redness, swelling, nausea, headache, chills, and muscle/joint pain.
Most tick bites don’t cause any problems, but see your doctor immediately if you think you’re carrying Lyme Disease or any other type of infection. Catching it early will significantly reduce your chance of complications. The doctor will prescribe antibiotics and you’ll be back to normal in no time.
What Diseases Do Ticks Carry?
Contrary to popular opinion, ticks don’t jump, fly, or drop onto you from above. They’re just tiny parasitic spiders without the ability to spin webs. Ticks move at about the same speed as an ant so they can’t even seek out and hunt hosts.
Ticks find their host by climbing about 18-24 inches off the ground (usually up tall grass) and standing with their legs extended waiting for the first animal to pass by within reaching distance. They actually sense heat and will grab onto anything that’s warm . That animal could be a human, but it’s usually a deer, oppossum, raccoon, dog, squirrel, birds and sometimes even lizards.
They’ll feed on anything that has blood! So there’s no way to say for sure what kind of disease a tick may be carrying. Lyme Disease is by far the most common but it all depends on where you picked them up and what animals they’ve fed on in the past.
Ticks pick up whichever disease their host is carrying. Who knows what kind of disease possums, racoons, rats, etc. are carrying. Ticks have even been known to pass on the bubonic plague.
How Long Does It Take For A Tick To Transmit Disease?
Regularly checking yourself for ticks on a camping trip will significantly reduce the chance of catching tickborne illness. Finding a tick within the 36-48 hours is crucial.
It doesn’t matter if the ticks already started to burrow into your skin. They don’t pass on disease until they start feeding off your blood. A tick usually starts feeding around the 36 hour mark and slowly passes on tickborne disease until they’re finished around 48 hours.
If you pull out a tick before that there’s almost no chance of catching Lyme Disease and other pathogens. It doesn’t matter if you leave part of the body in. Disease is only passed through the saliva during the feeding process. You need to pull out a tick as soon as possible even if you don’t have a set of tweezers to do the job right.
Obviously grab tweezers if you can get to them within a few hours, but prying out a tick with a knife in the field is better than leaving it in. It’s much easier to deal with minor infection from a ticks head being left in your skin than suffering through Lyme Disease.
Cleaning the bite with soap and water, rubbing alcohol, Neosporin, and a Band-Aid should hold off the infection until you get home. At that point if you notice signs of infection you should hit up your doctor for antibiotics. You never know what germs a ticks carrying. They could have crawled through raccoon feces before latching onto your skin. It’s always better to take extra precautions and take active steps to prevent infection.
Wearing Full Length Pants and Long Sleeve Shirts Helps Prevent Tickborne Illness
Ticks like to stay low to the ground where the majority of animals are so they usually latch onto your legs as your walking by. That’s why it’s so important to wear long socks and full length pants when your hiking in unkempt forest with tall grass.
They can’t burrow through pants so it will limit your chance of being bitten by a tick. Ticks will slowly crawl up your body looking for exposed skin, but they might not find exposed skin on a short hike. Strip down when you get home, take a shower, and check your body for ticks.
A hot shower won’t kill ticks, but it will wash off any that haven’t fully latched on. Plus it will be easier to spot ticks on your bare skin. Ticks can feed anywhere, but pay special attention to your ankles, waistline, neck, arms, and anywhere else where skins exposed between your clothing. They usually burrow on the first open patch of skin they find so look wherever your clothes meets skin.
Be careful with your clothes when bringing them inside after going through the woods. You don’t want to accidentally bring ticks inside that can lead to an infestation. Ticks usually dry out within a day or two indoors since they need a lot of moisture, but you don’t want them to get on other family members and animals.