Why Can't You Just Flick Away a Tick?

A tick nymph digs into a human arm. It will stay attached for three to four days unless removed. Josh Cassidy/KQED

Ticks are a scourge to those who love the outdoors.

They transmit diseases like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain fever, and those ailments can result in serious aches and pains, not to mention a distinctive rash.

While you may be familiar with what a tick bite can do, you may not know how a tick latches on and sips your blood. Not surprisingly, it's kind of horrifying.

Mouth and hook

A female western blacklegged tick explores a human arm.
A female western blacklegged tick explores the best place to take in a meal on a human arm. Josh Cassidy/KQED

As KQED reports, the method a tick uses get its teeth into you is truly a "feat of engineering."

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

So what's the deal with a tick's mouth?

For starters, it's covered in hooks. In fact, two sets of hooks — which look like hands with three hooked fingers — dig into a person's skin and push it out of the way.

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

Watch this video and you'll understand the true impact:

Once it has pulled back the skin, the tick extends its hypostome into our skin. This hypostome, which looks like a chainsaw with hooks all along its edges, works like a harpoon that helps keep the tick attached. The hypostome is why you can't just flick a tick off once it's attached to you.

"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.

But wait, there's more.

The tick's saliva has various compounds that draw your blood closer to the skin. Here, the blood pools and allows the ticks to sip it more easily. And it's a long leisurely sip, too. Unlike mosquitoes, which treat a human arm like a drive-thru, ticks settle in for long meals, sometimes staying attached for up to 10 days. Since ticks only feed three times over a lifetime, each feeding is needed to get to the next stage of life.

Blood is needed to move from larvae to nymph, from nymph to adult and, finally, from adult to birthing mother. And as the video above shows, a tick laying eggs isn't exactly pleasant, either.

Check, please

A nymph tick sips up some blood
A tick nymph, or young tick, has dug its mouth into a human arm. Drink up!. Josh Cassidy/KQED

To make sure that a tick doesn't make a meal out of you, always check yourself for ticks after you've been outdoors. It's easy for them to latch on, so make sure you give yourself a good once or twice over.

If you find a tick, act quickly. Grab some fine tweezers, pinch the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull straight out and away.

Padgett told KQED that other methods, like Vaseline or cotton balls soaked in soap, either take too long to work or don't work at all.

"You really want to remove the tick as soon as possible," she said.

And she's right. The bacteria from an infected tick's saliva needs less than 24 hours to start secreting Lyme disease into your system. That's also why, if you see a bit of the tick left in your body after you've yanked it out, you shouldn't fret. As scary and horrifying as those mouths can be, they're not responsible for transmitting diseases.

So the next time you're ready to go for a hike, wear clothing that keeps your skin covered and apply tick repellent. You don't want to be one of a tick's three big meals of a lifetime.