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I can handle childbirth, bodily fluids, and poop… but ticks? Ugh!
Fun fact (if there can be anything fun about ticks): they don’t bite but they technically sting. Either way, a tick bite can be very harmful.
Here are some of the steps you can take to prevent contact with ticks, and what to do if one bites despite your best efforts to avoid them.
Are Tick Bites Dangerous?
In a word, yes they can be.
Many of us are aware of the seriousness and widespread epidemic of Lyme disease, which is now more common than breast cancer. While it is possible to contract Lyme in other ways, ticks are overwhelmingly responsible.
Other less common tick-borne infectious diseases include anaplasmosis, spotted fever rickettsiosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever, and others that cause symptoms similar to Lyme disease. Although these are rare in comparison to Lyme, they are responsible for several thousand cases of tick-related illness in the US each year.
Lyme disease can potentially cause persistent fever, rash, headaches, chronic joint pain and swelling, allergic reactions, and even serious and debilitating neurological disorders. Lyme disease is especially troubling since it is often difficult to diagnose, as Dr. Jay Davidson explains in this podcast.
Where Are Ticks a Problem?
Cases of tick-borne disease tend to cluster around the northeastern United States, but according to the Center for Disease Control at least one case of tick-caused Lyme disease has occurred in every state.
The CDC continues to monitor the upward trend. Spokeperson Rebecca Eisen, a research biologist from the National Center for Infectious Diseases, explains:
Since the late 1990s, the number of reported cases of Lyme disease in the United States has tripled and the number of counties in the northeastern and upper Midwestern United States that are considered high-risk for Lyme disease has increased by more than 300%. One explanation for this trend is that the ticks that can transmit Lyme disease have expanded their geographic range and are now being found in places they weren’t seen 20 years ago.
According the last statistical update from the CDC in 2016, the following states are considered high-risk:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New York
- West Virginia
Maine, Vermont, and Pennsylvania have the highest incidence rate of Lyme cases. Data from 2013-2016 shows about 50-80 cases per 100,000 persons occur annually in each of those states. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and parts of Michigan are also experiencing an increase in cases in recent years.
If you live in one of these areas it’s important to take proactive steps to reduce chances of tick bites, especially in the spring and summer when ticks are hatching and looking for their next meal.
How to Check for Ticks
Engorged ticks are easier to spot, but some ticks can be as small as a pin head. They like to hide in warm, moist, covered areas of the body. First, shower off to remove any unattached ticks. To do a tick check, thoroughly go through the hair and nape of the neck, feeling with the fingers. Here are some other places ticks like to hide out:
- Behind arms
- Behind the knees
- In or around the ears
- Belly button
- Between the legs
- Around the waist
Rather than play naturalist, I’ll point you to the best tick identification tool I’ve found. This handy chart with tick pictures lets you filter by region, type, stages of maturity, stages of feeding, and even by which diseases each tick type might carry. The deer tick is the main one to look out for, but not the only one that causes problems.
What to Do If You Find a Tick
I’ll never forget the day I leaned over to check out a dark spot on the baby’s head. Sure enough… it was A TICK feasting on her scalp. I’m just going to pretend like I kept my cool and knew exactly what to do at the time, but it couldn’t be further from the truth…
A few kids later, I don’t like ticks any better but I now know what to do when I see one. If you’re an experienced mom or have pets around you’ve probably been through this drill a few times before, but if you haven’t, here’s what to do:
- Check to see if the tick is attached. If the tick is small, flat, and crawling around on your clothes, skin, the floor, etc., this is a good sign as the tick has not bitten anyone or fed recently. If it is large with a full, round body, this is more worrisome as it may have fed and fallen off of a pet or person in the home.
- If unattached, don’t try to kill it. If the tick is unattached, resist the urge to crush, burn, or otherwise destroy it. (It’s hard, I know.) Do not touch the tick with your bare hands but use tweezers or tape to grab it. Put it in a sealed plastic bag or small jar in the freezer. This both kills the tick and preserves it for identification if symptoms of a tick bite develop.
- If attached, here’s what to do (and not to do):
How NOT to Remove a Tick
There are plenty of home remedy solutions for tick removal, but these may do more harm than good. Burning the tick, putting essential oils on it, or greasing it with Vaseline may sound creative, but they can actually irritate the tick.
I don’t really care about a tick’s feelings, but if the tick is irritated it can vomit the contents of its stomach (pathogens included!) into the skin. Exactly what we don’t want to happen!
For years the proper tick removal code has said to use a pair of pointed tweezers and pull it straight out. While this works a lot of the time, it can leave the mouth of the tick embedded in the skin.
(Sidenote: I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve felt an invisible tick crawling on me while writing this post!)
What to Do Instead: Safe Tick Removal
Instead, use a tick removal device like this one. It resembles a spork that is inserted between the tick and the skin, then twisted gently until the tick releases. I keep one on my keychain during tick season.
Unlike the tweezer method, this device is much more likely to result in a clean removal. The prongs on either side help ensure that the tick mouth doesn’t bend too far to the side and snap off while rotating.
If you don’t have a tick removal tool, use tweezers but grab the tick as close to the head/mouth as possible.
How to Remove a Tick
- First, try to ignore the super-mom adrenaline pumping through your body!
- Approach the tick from the side with device or tweezers.
- Slide the notched tick removal device underneath the base of the tick head and the skin. If using tweezers, apply them firmly as close to the mouth/skin as possible.
- With a firm, slight lifting motion, gently spin the tick remover until the tick detaches itself. If using tweezers, pull up firmly but continuously. Don’t jerk or twist.
- Put the tick in a sealed bag, mark it with the date, and put it in the freezer. This kills it and saves it for identification if symptoms come up.
- Make sure that there are no tick parts left embedded in the skin. If there are, pulling it out with tweezers like a splinter or using a drawing salve can be helpful.
- Wash the area with soap and water and apply an antimicrobial to the area. Diluted lavender or germ-fighting essential oil blend are both good options.
Chances are all will be well if caught early and handled properly, but here’s what to look for:
Symptoms of Tick-Borne Illness
According to the CDC, possible symptoms of a tick-borne illness are:
- a relapsing fever and chills (flu-like symptoms)
- achy joints or muscle aches
- a large circular rash that looks like a bulls-eye around the bite site (called erythema migrans)
The bullseye rash doesn’t always occur, so it is important to check for other symptoms. For a complete list of symptoms, see the CDC’s website. Dr. Jay Davidson adds that a sore sternum (the bone over the breast) may be another sign of contracting Lyme.
If you suspect tick-related illness, consult with a doctor right away as early intervention may help. Dr. Davidson recommends taking Ledum palustre, a homeopathic remedy, as an alternative to antibiotics.
Tick Prevention Is the Best Cure (for Now)
The options for battling ticks aren’t perfect (especially if you prefer to avoid chemicals, as I do), and I can only hope we have more options for controlling the Lyme outbreak on the horizon. Until then, here are some of the steps we can take today to let our kids go adventuring without worry:
1. Tick-Proof Your Yard
It’s probably no surprise that I don’t recommend the professional chemical sprays for the yard, even in the name of reducing ticks. While many companies tout this as “safe,” if it kills ticks, it probably isn’t good for your pets or kids, let alone the environment and other harmless bugs in your yard.
There are quite a few logical (and natural) steps to discourage ticks:
- Keep the grass short. Since ticks like dense, tall grass (all the better to see you, my dear…), mowing often and keeping grass short is half the battle.
- Prune dense landscaping. Ticks favor damp shaded areas, so let as much natural sunlight as possible in by thinning overgrown areas of the yard.
- Mulch with cedar chips. Studies show ticks and cedar oil don’t mix. Since ticks crawl and don’t fly, try mulching the perimeter of your yard with cedar chips or between your yard and tall grass to discourage them from crossing.
- Get backyard chickens! Besides providing fresh eggs, they eat ticks!
2. Use Natural Bug Repellent
Although the EWG (Environmental Working Group) concludes DEET is a reasonably safe option at lower concentrations, it’s not recommended for pregnant woman or children under 6 months. There are also plenty of studies that point to possible side effects from using DEET and other repellents like permethrin, including dizziness, headaches, and even seizures.
While I certainly take ticks and the threat of Lyme disease seriously, I favor using natural bug repellents especially since studies show essential oils like citronella can be just as effective as DEET. My natural bug spray recipe uses several essential oils shown in studies to repel ticks: geranium, citronella, and lemon eucalyptus.
Natural bug repellent is especially useful (and proven effective) for repelling those tiny nymph ticks you can’t see in a tick check.
3. Check for Ticks Daily
I know, it’s not fun, but with a little practice it becomes habit. Put a full-length mirror in the bathroom, and/or teach kids how to check themselves and each other. This is the most comprehensive list I’ve found for how to conduct a complete tick check.
I know it’s not easy to get kids to stop what they’re doing and sit still, so we build it into the routine before lunch, dinner, and bedtime along with the wash hands/brush teeth step. This site has a free activity e-book for teaching really young kids how to check for ticks.
4. Practice Good Hiking Hygiene
Ticks love wooded areas or grassy areas, but I refuse to let ticks spoil our love for hiking, camping, and just being outdoors in the summer.
Be smart when hiking and follow these tips for avoiding ticks:
- Wear light-colored clothing (so ticks are more visible), with pants tucked into socks.
- Stay on the trails to avoid tick-infested areas.
- Do a tick check before getting in the car after a hike, or use a sticky lint roller on clothes to catch smaller ticks.
- Remove hiking clothes and put them immediately in the dryer for 10 minutes on high heat to kill ticks.
- Bathe or shower as soon as possible after hiking.
It makes for a strange family activity, but we keep robes in the mudroom so we can strip off after hiking, throw everything in the dryer, and head right for the showers.
5. Protect Pets
Pets are also susceptible to tick-borne diseases and it can often be more difficult to locate a tick because of all that fur. Check dogs and cats thoroughly before they come into the house and remove any ticks. You can also try applying a few drops of geranium essential oil around a dog’s collar, but don’t use this method (or any essential oils) on cats.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you ever had a tick bite? What did you do? Do you have other ideas to prevent them?