Dos & Don'ts of Removing Ticks From Kids

Of all the bugs that accost us during summer, ticks strike fear in the heart of most moms. Every black dot on our kid's skin is cause for alarm. Every dot that turns out to be a freckle, a sigh of relief. Not only do these tiny bugs bury their heads under our skin, they carry a plethora of tick-borne illnesses including the very serious Lyme disease, which can drag on for years with symptoms ranging from joint pain to fatigue to neurological disorders, learning disabilities, even death.

Here's what to do if you find a tick embedded in your child's skin.


DO remove the tick ASAP. "The most important thing to know about ticks is almost all of the diseases they give to humans are transmitted after the tick has been embedded in our skin for several hours," says Aileen Marty, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at Florida International University. "Studies have shown that an infected tick normally cannot begin transmitting Lyme until it has been attached to its host about 36 to 48 hours. This means that the sooner you take the tick off the body, the less chance you have of acquiring a tick-transmitted infection." Sadly removing a tick is easier said than done, since once a tick latches onto human skin, "it begins the process of inserting its mouth parts into the skin until it reaches the blood supply," explains Heather Rosen, MD, Medical Director of North Huntingdon Urgent Care in Pennsylvania. "The long, central mouth part, called the hypostome, is covered with sharp barbs, sometimes making removal difficult; plus, most ticks secrete a cement-like substance during feeding, which helps secure their mouth parts firmly in the flesh." From there, while feeding, it proceeds to "throw up" into your body, transmitting whatever viruses it has within. Nice, huh?

DON'T try the burnt match method. Many believe that holding a burnt match near the tick will convince it to dislodge its head and move to more peaceful pastures ... the reality is all this pussyfooting around just buys the tick time to pump more viruses into your child. 

DO remove the tick with tweezers or another tick removal device. The Tick Key, for instance, claims to be 99.9 percent effective in safely removing ticks, but tweezers work on the same basic principle. In a nutshell, you grasp the tick by the head as close to your skin's surface as possible. Then pull out with steady, even pressure -- don’t twist or jerk because you don't want to accidentally break the head or mouth parts off and leave them in the skin. If that happens, "you can then soak the area and it will come out," says Debra Jaliman, MD, professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of Skin Rules. "Or, as many patients do, go to the dermatologist to have the head removed." Once the tick is out, be sure to thoroughly cleanse the skin with soap and water and alcohol, says Rosen.

DON'T use petroleum jelly or alcohol. "Folklore remedies such as 'painting' the tick with nail polish, petroleum jelly, oil, or alcohol to make the tick detach from the skin can do more harm than good," warns Marty. These methods are either ineffective or, worse, "might agitate the tick and cause it to force more infective fluid into the wound site," warns Rosen. Your goal is to remove the tick as quickly as possible, not wait for it to detach.

DO save the evidence. To keep that tick from keeping you up nights as you wonder whether your child will be stricken with Lyme disease, whatever you do, don't throw it out. "Save it in a zip-top bag or jar to have it identified," says Jaliman. "If you bring it to your dermatologist, they can send it to the lab to see if it's a deer tick that could carry Lyme disease." This could save a child from having to go for a blood test, which can take up to four weeks from the bite to the time the blood test turns positive.

DON'T worry (too much). The good news? Not all ticks carry Lyme disease. Only "25 to 30 percent of deer ticks are infected," says Jaliman. And even if you do end up as one of the 30,000 cases of Lyme disease reported to the CDC every year, if caught early, most cases of the disease can be treated. It's only when the disease is not diagnosed due to lack of awareness that serious health complications typically occur.

DO head to the doctor if you notice any symptoms. "If you have a rash with a red ring -- which occurs in 80 percent of people -- then the child should see a doctor immediately and have a blood test for Lyme disease," says Jaliman. Your child may also suffer flu-like symptoms like fever, chills, muscle ache, and itching, and feel very tired. Left undiagnosed and untreated, Lyme can cause cardiac and neurological problems in 8 to 15 percent of patients; 10 percent will suffer joint problems. Years later you can get dementia, speech problems, muscle weakness, numbness, and tingling.

DO protect your kids. Prevention is the best medicine. "Dress your kids in closed-toe shoes and light-colored clothing with a tight weave to spot ticks easily," says Rosen. Tuck pants into kids' socks when on trails, place insect repellent on exposed areas of the skin, and tell your kids to stay on cleared, well-traveled trails and avoid overgrown areas. Also have your kids take a shower or bath in the evening, since this can wash away hard-to-see ticks that have not yet fully embedded themselves in the skin, according to the Bay Area Lyme Foundation. Last but not least, check your kid's body daily -- particularly dark, moist areas that ticks gravitate to like "the back of the knee, groin, navel, armpit, ears, or nape of the neck," says Rosen.

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