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Tick removal: What's the best way to get them out?

ABC News logo ABC News 22/05/2017 Claudine Ryan and Lydia Hales

Ticks are small eight-legged arthropods with mouth parts resembling a barbed sword. © ABC / Ryan Wick / Flickr Ticks are small eight-legged arthropods with mouth parts resembling a barbed sword. If you've ever had a tick, you'll know how unpleasant it is when one of these little blood suckers starts making a meal of you.

Most of the time tick bites are just annoying — they might hurt a bit, itch for a while and possibly swell up.

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

A new report states there's no evidence you can get Lyme disease from ticks in Australia, but acknowledges ticks can spread infections, some of which are 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 issue related to tick bites in Australia.

Sometimes these reactions are life threatening. One study from a hospital in Sydney's northern beaches, where these ticks are found in huge numbers, found 34 of the 500 people who presented with tick bites suffered anaphylaxis.

Your chances of having a severe allergic reaction are increased if you disturb the tick — by scratching it or try to remove it — and it injects more of its allergen-containing saliva.

But there's been very little hard data to help determine the best way to remove ticks to prevent allergic reactions.

"In the past there's been a whole range of 'urban myths' — substances you need to put on ticks to remove them, everything from a lighted match to kerosene to nail polish remover," Dr Webb says.

"The problem is that will just make the tick agitated, and the more agitated it is, the more likely it is to inject saliva and toxin into the bite site.

"Even worse is if you try to remove a tick with your fingers, you're actually just squeezing it and potentially squeezing more toxin into yourself."

While paralysis ticks can cause paralysis if they remain attached for a long period of time, this is more of an issue for dogs and other domestic animals. Check with your local vet about the best way to protect your pets from ticks.

There are also tick-borne pathogens, such as rickettsia, but Dr Webb says "there's such a big risk associated with allergic reaction that protecting yourself from that threat is also going to protect yourself from those other pathogens".

What's the advice?

A quick search online yields results from reputable sources that say you should pull out a tick with fine-tipped forceps (like tweezers with a pointy end), these allow you to grasp the animal as close as possible to the skin's surface.

The health department recommends this method and says it's vital you don't squeeze the tick's body during the process (which is easier said than done) as this increases the chances it will inject more toxin.

It also says that prior to removal 'the tick may be sprayed with an aerosol insect repellent containing pyrethrin or a pyrethroid chemical'.

However, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) doesn't agree with the forceps removal method. If you've ever tried to remove a tick, you will know how hard it is to do so without squeezing the tick's body or disturbing it in some way.

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

For those who are allergic the recommendations are:-

- Carry an action plan and EpiPen

- Kill the tick with a product that will rapidly freeze it

- Go to a hospital or similar safe place to have the tick removed.

What products will rapidly freeze ticks? Well, ASCIA recommends Aerostart (a spray used to start car engines), ether-containing sprays (such as those that freeze off warts) or liquid nitrogen (which you'd need to access via your doctor).

If you have a known allergy or are experiencing a reaction for the first time, ASCIA recommends seeking urgent medical attention to kill and remove the tick (unless it has been previously established that you can safely perform the process yourself).

So why the conflicting advice?

It likely comes as no surprise that our federal health department doesn't recommend using a highly flammable automotive product to kill ticks embedded in your skin, especially as there's no research to back this use.

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

Dr Webb says it's a case of clinical experience coming up against a lack of specific scientific research. But many of the recommendations found online for tick removal aren't made for species found in Australia, and the health issues they pose.

"Australia has different types of ticks to those that are found in North America and Europe," he says.

This is why Dr Webb thinks we should all follow the advice of ASCIA and kill ticks in place by using ether-containing aerosol sprays, although he admits some of these are not registered for use in humans.

Avoid them in the first place

But there is something everyone agrees on: it's best to avoid tick bites in the first place. This is especially important if you have an allergy, but a good idea for all of us.

So next time you're going somewhere you might come across a tick, you can reduce your chances of picking up one by:

- Wearing light-coloured long-sleeved shirts and long trousers (it's easier to see ticks on light-coloured clothing)-

- Tucking your shirt into trousers and trousers into long socks

- Wearing a wide-brimmed hat Brushing clothing before coming inside to remove ticks

- Using an insect repellent containing DEET

- Carefully checking for ticks, including your neck, scalp, groin and underarms when you come inside.

Tick facts

- 70 species in Australia

- Ticks are small eight-legged arthropods

- Mouth parts resemble a barbed sword and jab through host's skin

- Inject saliva, which contains toxin, into their host when they feed

- Paralysis tick, Ixodes holocyclus, most common

- Paralysis tick found on east coast of Australia — Victoria to far north Queensland

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