What to Do When a Tick Bites Your Child

Don’t let ticks cast a shadow over your summer

Saving tick in plastic bag after removal

Beach days, barbecues, ice cream … and ticks? Summer fun, unfortunately, goes hand-in-hand with tick season (May to October).

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“This can be very emotional for parents,” says pediatric infectious disease specialist Frank Esper, MD. “It’s scary when they find a tick burrowing in, and there’s a lot of concern about the diseases ticks can transmit.”

So what do you do if your child has been bitten? Dr. Esper shares some easy-to-follow guidelines.

Don’t just stand there — get it off!

Up your tick removal game: Start with blunt-tipped tweezers.

  1. Grasp the tick with the tweezers as close to the skin as possible.
  2. Give it a gentle, steady pull upwards. Don’t abruptly jerk or part of the tick (most likely the head) may still remain in the skin.
  3. Bag your tick for testing.
  4. Clean the area with disinfectant or soap and water.

Ignore old wives’ tales: “I’ve seen people pour turpentine on the tick. They use petroleum jelly or try to burn them off. Don’t,” warns Dr. Esper. Not only are these tick removal methods less effective, studies say they may increase your risk of getting a tick disease because the tick may release more saliva. Plus, some are downright dangerous.

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Look at the silver lining: Dr. Esper says the odds that your child has contracted a tick-borne illness are low, even if you live in a tick disease hotspot. “If you or your child has been bitten by a tick, and it’s been less than 36 hours, the likelihood of it transmitting Lyme disease is less than 3%. For transmission, the tick has to have been feeding on you for three days or more. Even then, we calculate the risk to be 25%. So that’s still a 75% chance you’re not going to get the infection.”

Bag the bug

Fight your instinct to burn that bug to high heaven. Don’t destroy the tick. Instead, bring it to your physician. “We can figure out if it’s a bad tick or not. Put it into a sealable bag or cup, take it to your doctor or call them up to have it analyzed,” advises Dr. Esper.

If it’s a Lyme disease-carrying tick, your pediatrician may give your child a one-time dose of doxycycline. This antibiotic helps prevent Lyme disease from developing.

Go straight to your pediatrician

Despite your vigilance, you may not know if your child has been bitten by a tick. While tick disease symptoms can appear at any time, Dr. Esper recommends seeing a doctor if you notice any of these signs:

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  • Rash associated with a tick-related illness (for example, a bullseye rash with Lyme disease).
  • Body aches.
  • Fever.
  • Joint pain.
  • Shakes or chills.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

  • Go undercover: Put insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or permethrin (at least 0.5%) on your skin AND clothing. Ticks are just hanging out, waiting for their dinner. Repellents disguise your body heat and odor, stopping ticks from picking you as their next meal train. Bonus: Permethrin-based repellents can withstand about a month’s worth of machine washings.
  • Focus on Fido: Check your pets for ticks. Rover or Peanut can serve as a tick’s Trojan horse — unwittingly bringing home the unwelcome eight-legged guest. It’s just easy pickins’ from there.
  • Manicures — they’re not just for hands: “Most tick exposures happen not during hiking but in people’s yards,” relates Dr. Esper. “Well-manicured grass acts as a buffer zone against them. They don’t like open areas.” But take caution around your yard’s edges — or better yet, put in mulch or gravel to prevent ticks from traveling to your grass.

Tick check, please!

Examine everyone’s skin from head to toe after coming in from outside. Showers can also prevent ticks from attaching.

Image showing where ticks are commonly found on the body

Where are tick disease hotspots?

Brace yourself: There are more than 800 types of ticks. (Ew!) However, most don’t carry human diseases, and most tick bites will not result in infections. But stay alert if you live in an area where ticks are active:

  • Northeast, Upper Midwest and Pacific Coast (Lyme disease, anaplasmosis).
  • Western U.S., specifically Colorado, Utah, Montana and Wyoming (Colorado tick fever).
  • Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas (ehrlichiosis).
  • North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri and Arizona (Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis).

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