Ticks and Kids: What to Know, What to Do
Ticks can freak out parents, but don't let fear keep you inside this summer. Be ready with our handy tips.
Pennsylvania is beautiful in the spring and summer, and our urban and suburban areas boast lots of natural landscape to enjoy and many state parks, rivers, beaches and more within a short distance. The state is also host to a large, widespread, and diverse population of ticks that can spread disease to humans and animals.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Pennsylvania is a hotbed for ticks: more than 73,000 cases of tick-borne disease were reported here between 2004 and 2016, the highest count in the country. How worried should we be about Lyme Disease and other tick-related illnesses? What can be done to protect our families and pets?
What We’re Dealing With
Ticks are arachnids (part of the spider family) that feed on blood of mammals. They need blood to move from one stage of life to the next, and must attach to a host to feed. Ticks live in humid climates with sandy soil, hardwood trees, rivers, and the presence of deer — sound familiar?
Ticks wait for their hosts in leaves and grasses and locate their hosts by smell. Once a tick finds a suitable host, it grasps the host’s skin and inserts a feeding tube. It is at this point that a tick’s bacteria can enter the host and may spread disease.
A tick will remain attached to its host until completely engorged. The longer a tick has been attached the more engorged it will appear, and the greater chance it will have had to pass along a disease.
Don’t let fear of tick-borne illness keep you inside. Instead, protect yourself before you head outside, and then do a complete tick check when you come in. Most importantly, know that not all ticks spread disease and that you are very likely to enjoy many outdoor adventures with no tick encounters at all!
Before you head outside, apply a tick prevention spray. Members of the Main Line Parent and Philly Family Facebook communities recommend a few natural solutions: BugBeGone, made locally by Ten Air Studios, and Botanical Solutions Tick Guard spray are both made with essential oils. (If you have oils themselves you can also make your own.)
If you’re hiking or playing in areas with tall grasses, consider long pants tucked into your socks, and encourage your children to play and roll in areas with shorter grass.
When you get home, run a sticky lint catcher along your clothes and then take a shower, rather than a bath; the running water can dislodge an attached tick. After your shower, check your children, especially in areas that are warmer and cozier for ticks: armpits, under the chin, elbows, behind the ears, in the hair and even private areas. Have your spouse check you, too.
Ticks are tiny — the size of a pin head — so you need to check carefully and know your kids’ freckles so you can tell the difference! Making a tick check a regular part of shower time will help your kids get used to it and you become familiar with their body markings and more able to notice something new. The less time a tick is attached, the less likely it has time to spread disease, so frequent — even daily but at least every other day — tick checks are key. One local mom pairs tick checks with teeth brushing every night.
What If You Find a Tick?
If you find a tick on your child or yourself, it’s important to remove it properly so you are sure to get the entire tick. You can use tweezers: get your tweezers as close to the skin where the tick is attached as you can, and pull upwards with steady, even pressure. Tick remover products make the task even easier because they are designed to get under the tick. Remove a tick in one movement and avoid digging around in the site, which can bury leftover disease particles.
Once you remove the tick, clean the area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or lots of soap and water. Put the tick in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel, and then call your pediatrician. Pediatricians may advise watching for any unusual symptoms or rashes before doing anything else, and can advise you about having the tick tested or beginning preventative medication. Seek medical advice with the doctor you trust.
Lyme Disease, the most challenging tick-borne disease, is transmitted by deer ticks, and can affect people and animals. But Pennsylvania has many types of ticks, so know what you’re dealing with before you start to worry.
If you’re especially concerned, snap a photo of the tick, put it in a plastic bag, then stash it in the freezer. If you or your child develops any symptoms, you’ll have the offender handy for testing.
Keeping Ticks Away at Home
Ticks prefer areas with tall grasses and lots of trees, so keeping your grass cut short is an easy and effective way to deter ticks in your yard. Since ticks often travel on deer, planting deer resistant plants can also decrease presence of ticks.
You may choose to have your yard sprayed. Green Pest Solutions is often recommended on our Facebook pages for kid- and pet-safe lawn treatments, and Mosquito Shield is another company our members find effective. Tick tubes are another chemical-free approach. You can purchase or make your own. Pay attention to what your kids are doing as they play; if they are rolling in the grass, hiding in the woods, etc. do an especially thorough tick check.
What About Pets?
Protecting your pets that go outdoors is similar to protecting your children and yourself! Consult your veterinarian for help choosing among the many prevention methods available for dogs, including pills and sprays and other topical methods. Rubbing lemon or lemongrass essential oil all over your pet before they go out can help but be judicious; remember pets have stronger senses of smell than we do.
Dr. Judy Morgan of Naturally Healthy Pets recommends other natural remedies, including adding a teaspoon of vinegar to each quart of drinking water, and sprinkling food-grade diatomaceous earth in your pet’s outdoor environment. Regular bathing – for pets with skin that can handle it – as well as tick checks work well for dogs just like they do for humans!
If you have a pet that spends a lot of time in the yard, treating your yard and/or planting deer resistant plants may be especially worthwhile. If you find a tick on your pet, take the same steps as with humans: remove it carefully, save it in a plastic bag and call your veterinarian.
The Bottom Line: How Freaked Out Should I Be?
The prevalence of ticks in our area is no joke, to be sure. But, there are many things – ranging from natural remedies to more aggressive approaches and including DIY options – that can be done to prevent ticks from getting to you and your pets. So, as with any risk, be smart but don’t let fear take over and prevent your outdoor fun this season.
Photograph by Rachel Kramer.