Sunburns, bee stings, looking both ways before crossing the street. As a parent there are a lot of things you warn your children about when they play outdoors. Ticks are a hidden danger that can make your child sick. They’re hard to spot — and may even be in your own backyard. These stealthy arachnids can hitch onto and bite your child without them feeling a thing. That’s why parents need to be vigilant.
The Concern With Ticks
If you get bit by a tick, you are at risk of catching a disease if the tick itself is infected with that disease. These diseases are called tickborne illnesses. Different ticks can transmit different illnesses.
Common tickborne illnesses
The tickborne disease you’re probably most familiar with is Lyme disease. It’s caused by two tick species — the blacklegged tick (commonly known as a deer tick) and the Western blacklegged tick. Deer ticks are found east of the Rocky Mountains. Western blacklegged ticks are found west of the Rockies.
Lyme disease accounts for 82% of all tickborne diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the United States, reported cases of Lyme disease have tripled since the 1990s. Left untreated, it can spread affect your child’s joints, heart, and central nervous system.
But other tickborne diseases also are on the rise. These include anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis, spotted fever rickettsiosis (including Rocky Mountain spotted fever), babesiosis, tularemia, and Powassan virus.
A Year-Round Threat
There’s no such thing as tick season. Ticks can be found throughout the United States year round.
Ticks are most active in temperatures above 45 degrees. But ticks can be active on cold winter days, according to the University of Rhode Island’s Tick Encounter program. That’s because ticks don’t die in freezing temperatures. They just go dormant.
And even though ticks are found mostly outdoors, they can make their way indoors. They can hitch a ride onto your pets. Or you can bring them in on your shoes and clothing without realizing.
Why You Shouldn’t Worry too Much
The good news: Not all tick species can spread disease. And not all tick bites will make a child sick.
Ticks need to deliver an infectious dose of a germ. If a deer tick has been attached for less than 24 hours, the chance of contracting Lyme disease is extremely small. In most cases, the tick needs to feed on your child for at least 36 hours, according to the CDC.
It’s not clear how long other tick species need to feed before transmitting disease. One notable exception is the Powassan virus, which can cause memory issues and, in rare cases, swelling of the brain and spinal cord. Blacklegged ticks can transmit that virus in as little as 15 minutes. But it’s still fairly rare.
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Checking for Ticks
After any outside play, particularly in grassy or wooded areas, it’s important to check your children for ticks. Ticks can be hard to spot. Before they feed, they can be the size of a poppy seed.
For tick prevention, experts at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh recommend using products the contain DEET, an insect repellant found in brands like OFF. This product can be sprayed on clothing and lasts through a few washes.
Ticks like to hide in the nooks and crannies of your body. During active tick season, a daily tick check before bedtime (ideally after a shower or bath) is good practice.
Check these hiding places on younger children (and teach older children to check themselves):
- On their scalp and in their hair.
- In and behind their ears.
- Under their arms/armpit.
- Inside their belly button.
- Around their waist.
- Between their thighs and legs.
- Behind their knees.
Steps to Safely Remove Ticks
Spotting a tick on your child may cause a moment of panic. But it’s important to act quickly and remove the tick. The sooner you do that, the less likely your child will get sick.
Resist the urge to squash the tick either on your child’s skin or in between your fingers. That can cause the tick to pierce the skin or release additional toxins. Instead follow these dos and don’ts from the CDC for safe removal.
- Use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers.
- Grab the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull it straight up and out using steady pressure.
- Wash the bite area and your own hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
- Don’t twist or yank the tick. That can cause the tick’s mouth to stay in your child’s skin. If that happens, you can try to remove the head. If you can’t, leave it alone to let your child’s skin heal.
- Don’t try to burn or smother the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly. Those are old myths. These actions can keep the tick in your child’s skin longer, increasing the risk of infection.
When to See a Doctor
Monitor your child for these symptoms for 30 days following the tick bite:
- Rash. A bulleye’s rash at the bite is common with Lyme disease.
- Muscle pain.
- Joint pain and swelling.
If your child has any of these symptoms, take them to their doctor. Several weeks of antibiotics can treat most tickborne diseases.
Lyme Disease. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Lyme and Other Tickborne Diseases Increasing. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Patient Education: What To Do After a Tick Bite to Prevent Lyme Disease. UpToDate. Link
Tick Removal, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Tick Bite: What to Do. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Western Blacklegged Tick. National Environmental Health Association. Link
Winter Tick Activity: Why You Should Keep Up Your Tick Prevention. University of Rhode Island. Tick Encounter. University of Rhode Island. Link.
Connect with UPMC
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.