A panic-free guide to ticks and Lyme disease

Ticks can transmit different infections when they bite humans. They get their nourishment from the blood of animals. Ticks feed on animals such as mice and deer, and they can even feed on humans.

As a tick feeds, it fills with blood and gets much bigger. Typically, a person does not even feel when a tick is attached.

Ticks are a health risk to humans because they can transmit infection. You cannot tell if a tick carries an infection just by looking at it. In fact, the infection does not make the tick sick at all. But when an infected tick bites, the infection can pass to a person.

What is Lyme disease?

The most common infection from ticks is Lyme disease. The deer tick transmits Lyme disease by passing infected bacteria into a person during a prolonged bite. Lyme disease is most common in the mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Midwest areas of the United States.

The chance of Lyme disease occurring from a tick bite is actually quite low — generally under 2%.

Lyme disease usually starts with a round, red rash at the site of the tick bite. The redness at the center of the rash often clears, so it often looks like a target sign or bull’s eye. The next symptoms are joint pain, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. Fever is less common. If Lyme disease is not treated, it can progress to cause arthritis and even heart and brain problems.

Because bacteria cause Lyme disease, it can be treated with antibiotics. Early treatment can prevent later stages of infection. However, later stages also can be treated. Even if the infection is treated early, symptoms like joint pain may linger for a few months, but it is uncommon for symptoms to last longer than six months to a year.

Ticks can also cause less common diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Although these infections are less common, some can be serious. It is important to contact a health care provider if you or your child develops fever or other unusual symptoms within a few weeks of getting a tick bite.

What to do for a tick bite

  • Do: Use tweezers to grasp the tick securely as close to the skin as possible. Pull the tick straight out with a slow, steady hand.
  • Don’t: Do not burn the tick or attempt to smother the tick, such as with petroleum jelly. These methods are not effective. Using an incorrect method could cause the tick to panic and inject infectious material into the person it’s biting.
  • Do: Wash the skin with soap and water after removing the tick.
  • Do: Take a picture of the tick and include something to reference the tick’s size, like a penny. If you can’t take a photo for reference, make careful note of what the tick looks like, such as its color and size.
  • Do: Try to determine when the tick exposure may have occurred. This will help with establishing how long the tick may have been attached.
  • If it was a deer tick, carefully observe the area of the tick bite for the bull’s eye rash of Lyme disease.
  • If the tick has not attached, it has not fed. This means it could not have transmitted an infection.

Call a doctor if you or your child has a deer tick bite and:

  • The tick has been attached for more than 36 hours.
  • You notice a growing red rash around the tick bite.
  • There is fever, joint pain, headache, other rash or other signs of illness in the next several weeks.

What can you do to prevent tick bites?

  • Always check for ticks after being outside, especially in wooded areas. Pay careful attention to areas where ticks may be hard to spot, like the scalp, behind ears, the groin and the underarm. Adults should always inspect children for ticks.
  • Wear long sleeves and pants, and tuck pants into socks to keep skin covered.
  • Wear light-colored clothing, so you can spot a tick more easily.
  • Wear a hat.
  • Use an insect/tick repellent when your family is outside in an area where ticks will be prevalent. The best way to prevent ticks is by using the combination of:
    • Treating clothes with Permethrin
    • Treating exposed skin with DEET.

A note about insect repellent and your children

An adult should always apply insect repellent for a child. Most DEET products contain between 10% and 30% DEET. The higher strengths offer longer protection, but use the lowest amount needed. Permethrin will not work to repel insects from the skin and should only be used on clothing. Be careful to read and follow the manufacturer’s directions.

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend using insect repellents on children under two months of age. Take care not to have children this young in an environment where they are exposed to ticks.

Taking special precautions will help avoid a tick bite. Although a tick bite is not a cause for panic, it is important to know what to do if you or your child is bitten by a tick.

Author Laura Lawler, M.D., FAAP, is chief of Pediatric Hospitalists at Christiana Care.