How Ticks Dig In With a Mouth Full of Hooks | Deep Look

Why can’t you just flick a tick? Because it attaches to you with a mouth covered in hooks, while it fattens up on your blood. For days. But don’t worry – there *is* a way to pull it out.

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Spring is here. Unfortunately for hikers and picnickers out enjoying the warmer weather, the new season is prime time for ticks, which can transmit bacteria that cause Lyme disease.

How they latch on – and stay on – is a feat of engineering that scientists have been piecing together. Once you know how a tick’s mouth works, you understand why it’s impossible to simply flick a tick.

The key to their success is a menacing mouth covered in hooks that they use to get under the surface of our skin and attach themselves for several days while they fatten up on our blood.

“Ticks have a lovely, evolved mouth part for doing exactly what they need to do, which is extended feeding,” said Kerry Padgett, supervising public health biologist at the California Department of Public Health in Richmond. “They’re not like a mosquito that can just put their mouth parts in and out nicely, like a hypodermic needle.”

Instead, a tick digs in using two sets of hooks. Each set looks like a hand with three hooked fingers. The hooks dig in and wriggle into the skin. Then these “hands” bend in unison to perform approximately half-a-dozen breaststrokes that pull skin out of the way so the tick can push in a long stubby part called the hypostome.

“It’s almost like swimming into the skin,” said Dania Richter, a biologist at the Technische Universität in Braunschweig, Germany, who has studied the mechanism closely. “By bending the hooks it’s engaging the skin. It’s pulling the skin when it retracts.”

The bottom of their long hypostome is also covered in rows of hooks that give it the look of a chainsaw. Those hooks act like mini-harpoons, anchoring the tick to us for the long haul.

“They’re teeth that are backwards facing, similar to one of those gates you would drive over but you’re not allowed to back up or else you’d puncture your tires,” said Padgett.

— How to remove a tick.
Kerry Padgett, at the California Department of Public Health, recommends grabbing the tick close to the skin using a pair of fine tweezers and simply pulling straight up.

“No twisting or jerking,” she said. “Use a smooth motion pulling up.”

Padgett warned against using other strategies.

“Don’t use Vaseline or try to burn the tick or use a cotton swab soaked in soft soap or any of these other techniques that might take a little longer or might not work at all,” she said. “You really want to remove the tick as soon as possible.”

— What happens if the mouth of a tick breaks off in your skin?
Don’t worry if the tick’s mouth parts stay behind when you pull.

“The mouth parts are not going to transmit disease to people,” said Padgett.

If the mouth stayed behind in your skin, it will eventually work its way out, sort of like a splinter does, she said. Clean the bite area with soap and water and apply antibiotic ointment.

—+ Read the entire article on KQED Science: www.kqed.org/science/1920972/how-ticks-dig-in-with-a-mouth-full-of-hooks

—+ For more information:
Centers for Disease Control information on Lyme disease:
www.cdc.gov/lyme/

Mosquito & Vector Control District for San Mateo County, California:
www.smcmvcd.org/ticks

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Funding for Deep Look is provided in part by PBS Digital Studios. Deep Look is a project of KQED Science, which is supported by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation, the Vadasz Family Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Fuhs Family Foundation Fund and the members of KQED.