Ticks that carry Lyme disease are a particular problem for children in the Northeastern United States, and the problem is growing. As climate change expands the territory of ticks who carry the bacteria that cause Lyme, more parents will need to take precautions to protect their children from the bloodsucking arachnids. And while some may be tempted to keep kids inside the entire summer to avoid the risk, there are more reasonable steps parents can take to reduce the risk of tick bites and infection.
Reducing the risk of Lyme disease is important, especially since it’s hard to treat because blood tests don’t always accurately diagnose it. “Lyme is an infection that can make people very sick and the testing that exists now is limited in some ways,” Dr. JoAnn Petrini, principal investigator, and director of the Western CT Health Network Lyme Disease Biobank. “It really depends on when someone is tested. Basically, the blood test is only accurate two-thirds of the time and it really depends on the timing.”
Petrini and her colleagues at the biobank are working to develop a blood test to catch the bacterium in the blood sooner, rather than waiting for the body to develop detectable antibodies. But that solution is a ways off. So prevention is the best option. “Whenever you’re taking your kid out for summer activities, the best thing is to use a tick repellent,” explains primary care provider and infectious disease specialist Dr. Annie Mudassar of the Western CT Health Network. She notes that the repellant should contain at least 30 percent DEET, which will keep ticks at bay. Parents can also dress kids in clothing treated with insect repellent, but that should not preclude using some form of repellent on a child’s exposed skin.
Even more importantly, “wear something that has an elastic band so a tick cannot crawl up your legs or on your skin,” Mudassar adds. “Long-legged and long-sleeved clothing is really preferred. I know everyone wants to wear shorts in the summer. It’s better to cover yourself.”
It’s also important to develop a routine as soon as kids come in from the great outdoors. And for parents that live in tick and Lyme country, that routine should happen regardless of where they were playing. “You can never say, ‘This place is tick free’,” Mudassar says. “You can never say for sure when there are woods and deer all around. They can be around leafy areas and tall grass.”
How to Tick Proof Your Child
- Understand that in tick country there is no such thing as a tick-free space
- Apply an insect repellent with a minimum 30 percent DEET
- Dress your child in long-sleeve and long-leg clothing with elastic at ankles and wrists
- Wash clothing when children return home
- Check children for ticks, paying attention to hair and elastic around underwear
- Give the child a bath within a couple hours of being outside
- Don’t forget to check the pets
When entering the house, children should remove their clothing and put it directly in a washing machine. At that point parents can manually check their children for ticks. Pay close attention to the child’s hair and the elastic around the waist and legs of their underwear. It’s also important that parents not forget to check any dogs or cats that might come in with the children. If you do find a tick, don’t panic. And, if that tick is still moving, you can usually breathe a sigh of relief. “If they were out just for a while and they find a tick crawling on the child’s body it’s pretty safe just to remove it,” Mudassar says. “The tick usually takes 24 hours before trying to feed.” End the check with a warm bath.
Petrini tells parents to remember the BLAST acronym — Bathing, Looking for ticks, Applying insect repellent, Spraying yards with insecticide, and Treating pets for ticks with medicated collars or other veterinary interventions. Parents who follow these steps should have no trouble catching ticks before they bite.