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Family health

Tick on Child's Skin? Here's What You Need to Do First

2023 might just be the worst year ever for ticks, here's what you need to know if your child gets bit

By Vanessa Grant
Tick on Child's Skin? Here's What You Need to Do First

Getty / Imgorthand

Sylvia DiBiase went on a lovely walk in the woods with her son one Sunday afternoon and the following day, she faced what many parents dread: she found a tick on her child. "My son mentioned that he had an itchy spot on his head. I parted his hair at his hairline and right away, I saw it," she says. "My heart sank and I tried to pretend that everything was okay, but I was totally freaking out inside."

Time magazine declared that 2023 might just be the worst year ever for ticks, with one expert in New York going so far as to say that they've seen a 100 percent increase in the number of ticks humans have encountered since 2020.

Ticks are most common in the northeast, upper midwest and mid-Atlantic parts of the U.S. You can find ticks in most provinces in Canada, but British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have the highest numbers.

Why are ticks worrisome?

Many ticks carry a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi that causes Lyme disease. Lyme causes fever, headaches, fatigue and a bullseye-like skin rash with red rings around the bite. If left untreated, Lyme can cause joint pain and arthritis and can also spread to the nervous system and heart. While it can be prevented with a brief round of antibiotics, the drugs should be taken soon after the bite happens. If you wait too long, a month of antibiotics may be required.

Ticks may also cause anaplasmosis or ehrlichiosis, both of which can cause severe illness if left untreated.

How can you prevent Lyme disease?

Dr. Thomas Mather, Director of the University of Rhode Island Center for Vector-Borne Disease, and Equip-4Ticks Resource Center, shares four key ways to avoid getting bitten.

  1. When walking in a forest or on a trail, walk down the middle of the trail. "Ticks are usually more abundant on the edges of trails, so walking down the center can help you avoid ticks that are waiting to jump onto the nearest host. It’s also important to understand that the simple act of stepping off the trail to let someone by can increase your risk of a tick encounter."
  2. Tuck in your clothes. "Ticks will attach anywhere on your shoes or clothing and then crawl onto your skin," says Dr. Mather, so tuck pant legs into your socks and shirts into pants. And skip the shorts when exploring the outdoors.
  3. Remove your clothes after being in a tick habitat and put them in the dryer. "Putting your clothing in the dryer after being out in a tick habitat can help remove ticks that may be hiding."
  4. Do a thorough tick check. "It’s important to do a thorough tick check on yourself, your kids, and your pets after being in a tick habitat, especially in areas where your clothing binds against your skin, such as your underarms."
Mother and daughter hiking in forest. Mother is applying tick repellent on the daughter's legs. Getty / Imgorthand

How do you do a tick check?

Pediatrician Dr. Kelly Fradin who lives in New York City, says it's important to check for ticks every day. "In the northeast, we've seen increases in tick bites, even in more urban and suburban areas. Dogs often will run through the bushes and carry ticks inside as well."

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She suggests checking the whole body but focusing on the places socks and underwear cover, as well as armpits, behind the ears and in hair. "Ticks often crawl around before biting and they prefer these spots," she says.

What should you do if you find a tick on your child or yourself?

"I wasn't going to take any chances of pulling it out myself, so we headed for the hospital," says DiBiase, who found the tick on her son's hairline. But rushing to the emergency room isn't necessary.

If you find a tick on your child, Dr. Fradin says not to panic. "Take some photos in good light and with the focus on the head and neck of the tick. Also, take photos of the entire tick." Photos are helpful for identifying the type of tick later.

"To remove the tick simply use a pair of tweezers to grasp as close to the skin as possible and pull firmly." Dr. Fradin says to clean the area with soap and water and wash your hands and the tweezers. "You may want to save the tick until you contact your doctor to determine the plan," she says.

Next, call your child's doctor to book an appointment. The doctor will let you know whether your child requires antibiotics, which are often given for preventative reasons. A prescription doesn't mean your child has Lyme disease.

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Tick Spotters is another resource Dr. Fradin recommends. Created by The University of Rhode Island, you can upload a photo of the tick to the site and someone will respond for free within 36 hours. "They are often able to identify the species of tick and estimate the risk of tick-borne illness," she says.

Finally, continue to monitor your child for signs of tick-borne illness. These include fever, rash, joint pains, headaches and significant fatigue. "If you live in an area where ticks are endemic, it's certainly possible to get these infections without ever noticing a tick," says Dr. Fradin. So keep an eye out for these symptoms even if you don't find any bites.

What you should NOT do if you find a tick on your child or yourself

Dr. Mather shares four tick mistakes you don't want to make. "There are right and wrong ways to safely remove a tick," he says. Here are common tick removal methods to avoid and the reasons why they're not recommended.

Do not:

  1. Use a hot object or heat. This can cause the tick to dispel more germs inside you and risks potential burns
  2. Use suffocation products such as oils or Vaseline. The key is removing the tick as quickly as possible, which this method does not support.
  3. Squeeze the tick, or try to remove it with your fingers. Instead, use pointy tweezers to remove the tick. Grab as close to the skin as possible, and pull it straight out.
  4. Throw the tick away. You should save the tick in a small plastic bag, take a photo of the tick, and send it for tick testing

What you need to know about ticks

By now you've learned just about everything a parent needs to know about preventing tick bites and diseases, but you're still bound to hear some of these common misconceptions that could lead to increased risk or simply unnecessary anxiety around ticks. Here are the top myths, according to Dr. Mather:

Myth: Ticks fall from trees Fact: Ticks crawl from the ground up

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Myth: All ticks carry diseases Fact: Not all ticks carry pathogens that can cause human disease

Myth: Ticks burrow into your skin Fact: Ticks cannot go further than their mouth part or their hypostome, however, the skin around a bite can become inflamed, making it look as of the tick has burrowed into the skin

Myth: You always get a bullseye rash when bitten by a tick Fact: Not all people bitten by a tick experience a bullseye rash

Myth: DEET is the most effective repellent for tick bite prevention Fact: DEET works effectively against mosquitos and biting flies, however, research shows that permethrin products work best as a tick repellent

This article was originally published on Jun 28, 2023

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