'Ticks.' The very mention of these little arachnids is enough to make many people's skin crawl. Ticks and the illnesses they carry are becoming more pervasive across the United States, and Virginia is not immune to this national trend. To help your family avoid tick exposure and enjoy your summer vacation, we are answering three important questions you can ask about tick bites and about a common, concerning disease that ticks carry:
What Are The Symptoms of a Tick Bite?
The symptoms of a tick bite itself are actually minimal. While common local insects like mosquitoes cause pain or itching when they bite, ticks do not. This is because tick saliva includes kininases - a painkilling substance that helps them latch onto a host without being noticed. Without active monitoring on our part, ticks can slip under the radar - entirely or until they begin to swell as a result of their feeding on their host. In addition to being painless, tick bites inconsistently generate a small, red, and tender bump after the tick falls off.
Because tick bites present with few to no symptoms, we and other medical experts advise our patient to take steps to prevent tick bites and perform regular “tick checks” to help discover ticks. It is also important to be able to recognize the symptoms of Lyme disease, a common tick-borne illness that can be passed on to us following a tick bite.
How Will I Know If My Child Has Lyme Disease?
While there are several different diseases that can be transmitted by a tick bite, Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in Virginia. Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness caused by a bacterial infection (due to the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi). It is transmitted to humans only through the bite of an infected deer tick.
While the illness can affect anyone of any age, the Virginia Department of Health reports that it's more common in persons under 16 years of age or persons older than 30 years of age. While many Lyme disease cases occur in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and upper Midwest, the disease is not limited to these areas.
Roughly 70% to 80% of Lyme disease cases present with an infamous bull's eye rash, which starts at the site of the tick bite. This rash usually develops within 7 - 14 days after the bite occurs. While the rash itself is asymptomatic, patients also often experience symptoms such as fatigue, fever, headache, joint pain, and muscle aches.
Should your child develop these symptoms, it's important to visit a doctor and determine if Lyme disease treatment is needed, which can sometimes be given in the absence of testing. If Lyme disease is not recognized or treated during the early stage, the bacterium can enter the bloodstream and therefore disseminate to other parts of the body. Weeks to months after the tick bite, untreated Lyme disease can manifest as heart, joint, and neurologic problems. Disseminated Lyme disease is treatable, often with hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics.
How Can I Protect My Children From Tick Bites?
Because bites can be hard to detect, and because Lyme disease can cause serious illness, tick bite prevention should be a priority for families during the summer. It’s also important to remember that since ticks have become more commonplace across the country, any time spent outdoors can potentially give these arachnids a chance to crawl onto you or your children.
With that in mind, be sure to do the following to minimize your family’s risk of tick exposure:
- Know where ticks could be, and behave accordingly. Ticks primarily live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas. One way to minimize your risk of being bitten is to avoid these areas and stay at the center of outdoor trails. Animals, however, often transport ticks to other areas. That means a deer passing through your yard has the potential to drop off ticks. So in addition to hiking or camping, activities such as walking your dog, gardening, or even playing in your backyard could bring you in close contact with ticks. To minimize the risk of being bitten in your own backyard, we recommend following landscaping guidelines designed to make your home a tick-free zone.
- Protect your clothes and gear. To help minimize your risk of picking up a tick, you can “treat” your clothing and outdoor gear with tick spray products. Use ones containing 0.5% permethrin, which can be used to treat boots, clothing and camping gear and remains protective through several washings.
- Use repellant for your skin. Use Environmental Protection Agency registered insect repellents containing: DEET, picaridin, or Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE). No repellent should be used on babies younger than 2 months old, and products containing OLE should never be used on children under 3 years old. Make sure to rinse or shower at the end of the day after using these products.
- Dress appropriately. In addition to using repellants and treated clothing, always tuck your pants into your socks when you’re outdoors in a high-risk area. This will help to keep ticks from crawling up your legs. If weather permits, wearing long sleeves is also a deterrent for ticks.
- Check yourself, your pets, and your families for ticks after being outside. No matter what other prevention measures you take, checking for ticks after being outdoors is always a must. This includes examining your clothing; examining any gear and/or pets that were outside with you; and checking your child for ticks. Be especially sure to look underneath arms; in and around ears; inside belly buttons; behind knees; in and around hair; between the legs/ at the groin; and around the waist.
This information covers some of the basics surrounding tick bites and Lyme disease. If you have additional or specific concerns about Lyme disease, please contact us. Our team and staff members at Capital Area Pediatrics can help to answer your questions and assist your family in enjoying the season as safely as possible. Additionally, should you need an appointment, be sure to find your nearest location and give our staff a call today!