In recent years, parents have become more aware of the health risks associated with tick-borne illnesses. Much of the public attention has focused on Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that was first identified in children with arthritis-like symptoms in Lyme, CT, and nearby communities in the 1970s. But there are other tick-borne infections that also pose risks for children, including those caused by bacteria or viruses such as relapsing fever, tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, and Colorado tick fever. Specific tick-borne infections vary from one region of the country to another. Unless precautions are taken, they can sometimes cause serious illness.
Lyme disease is transmitted by the deer tick. It is caused by spiral-shaped bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi and can produce arthritis (swelling of the joints), most commonly in the knee (this is often called Lyme arthritis). The infection usually begins with a red rash at the site of the tick bite, as well as flu-like symptoms such as a headache, fever, chills, swollen glands, and fatigue.
Reducing Your Child’s Risk
To protect your child from tick-borne infections such as Lyme disease
- Keep him away from tick-infested areas such as wooded regions, high grasses, and marshes. He should stay on cleared trails. Ticks can live in your own backyard. Clear away brush and tall grass and remove leaves.
- If your child spends time in a tick-infested area, he should wear clothing that covers bare parts of the body, including arms and legs. Button longsleeved shirts at the cuff and tuck shirts into pants and pants into socks or boots. Your child shouldn’t wear sandals that leave part of the feet exposed when he’s in an area where ticks are present. He should wear a hat to keep ticks away from his scalp. If he wears light-colored clothing, it will be easier to spot ticks.
- Spray the insecticide permethrin on his clothes to decrease the chances that ticks will attach to them. Do not spray permethrin directly on the skin.
- Use a tick and insect repellent that contains DEET (diethyltoluamide), applying it lightly to the skin. It needs to be reapplied every 1 to 2 hours. Repellents appropriate for children should contain no more than 20% to 30% DEET. The chemical is absorbed through the skin, so it can be unsafe for children at very high concentrations. Carefully follow the directions on the repellent’s label to avoid any side effects. Do not put repellent on your child’s face, hands, or any irritated skin or open sores. Once your child returns indoors, wash the sprayed areas of the skin with soap and water.
- Take a couple minutes to inspect your child’s body, including the head and neck, behind the ears, and along the hairline, each day. Removing ticks promptly will often prevent disease. Remove the tick by grasping it with tweezers as close to the skin as possible. Gently but firmly pull straight up and out until the tick is removed, without using any twisting motion.
- If you must use your fingers to remove a tick, protect them with tissue or cloth, and then wash your hands once the tick has been removed. Once the tick is removed, wash the bitten area with alcohol or an antiseptic. Sometimes parts of the tick’s mouth stay in the skin, and it can often cause more harm than good to try to remove it completely. If you have household pets, they should be kept as tick free as possible to prevent them from bringing ticks into your home. Inspect your pets for ticks when they have spent time in tick-infested areas, checking the fur and skin. Use veterinary products to prevent ticks from attaching themselves to your pets.
Keep in mind that your chance of getting Lyme disease after a tick bite is very low (even in Lyme, CT). If your child gets a Lyme disease treatment with antibiotics, he will be cured. Although a Lyme vaccine was developed, it is no longer made. The best way to protect your child from Lyme disease or any tick-borne disease is to follow the preventive measures described.