Tick bites in children

Contributor: Dr. Elise Herman, MD, KVH Pediatrics

Ahhh, summer! As that much anticipated warmer weather comes, it brings with it the risk of tick bites and the diseases they can cause. Knowing how to prevent tick bites, what to watch for if your child is bitten and how to remove ticks can make us feel more ready for outdoor adventures with our kids.

Ticks have 8 legs, flat oval bodies, and vary in size from the tiny deer tick (size of a poppy seed) to the wood/dog tick (size of an apple seed). They can swell to two or three times their usual size when they have had a blood meal. After sucking blood for 3-6 days, ticks fall off on their own, often leaving a small red bump. As it feeds on the blood, some of the tick’s spit gets transmitted to the host’s body and can cause infection. Ticks must be attached for at least 36 hours to spread infection.

Washington has fewer tick-borne diseases compared to other parts of the country, but we do have cases of Lyme Disease, babesiosis, tick paralysis, and tularemia. Lyme Disease is the most common tick-borne disease in our state and the US. It is most prevalent in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, upper Midwest, and to a lesser extent on the West Coast. It is spread by the very small deer tick. 80% of Lyme Disease starts as a circular or oval red bull’s eye rash called erythema migrans at the tick bite location within 3-30 days of a bite. It can expand to up to 12 inches and lasts 2-3 weeks. Other signs of early Lyme Disease are fever, body aches, headache, chills, and neck stiffness. If Lyme disease is diagnosed early and treated with antibiotics, progressing to later stages of the disease is very unlikely. The later stages can involve bull’s eye rashes elsewhere on the body, joint pain, temporary facial paralysis, and limb weakness.

There are steps you can take to help prevent tick bites. Avoid dense, grassy or wooded areas, and stay to the center of the trail. Ideally, everyone should wear hats, light colored clothing, long sleeves, and long pants tucked into socks. You can spray permethrin on clothing (not the skin) to decrease tick attachment. Insect repellent containing 20-30% DEET is safe for children but you should minimize its use on very young children and infants. Do not use products that combine DEET and sunscreen since sunscreen needs to be applied more frequently than DEET. Do not apply DEET to the hands of young kids or near their eyes or mouth.

Do a tick check of your child right after being outdoors where there might have been tick exposure. Look at the clothing first, then the skin and scalp. Don’t forget behind the ears, in the armpits and groin area. Showering may help prevent attachment. If you do find a tick, use tweezers to grasp it close to the skin; pull gently and slowly to remove. Try not to crush it when doing this and wash the area well afterwards.

It is important to remember that the chance of a tick bite causing any disease is extremely low. Only 2% of deer tick bites will cause Lyme Disease even in high-risk areas and here in Washington state we are at low risk of any tick disease. So, wherever your outdoor adventures take you and your kids this summer, a bit of planning to prevent tick bites and knowing how to handle them if they happen will help you to all enjoy those long summer days!