When I was a kid, I spent many a summer playing in the woods near my grandmother’s house with a boy from down the road. We threw sweetgum balls at each other, captured tadpoles, and looked for bugs under rocks. A week after one of our escapades, I received a phone call from my grandmother. The boy, it turns out, was in the hospital with “some kind of disease from a tick,” which I later learned was Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The next time I saw him, he was slower, slurred, and partially deaf– not the vivacious playmate I remembered. Now twenty-nine years old, his cognitive capacity is similar to that of my four-year-old daughter, who I check for ticks on a daily basis during the warm season.
As the summer heat rolls in, I can’t help but think back to my childhood and remember that harsh warning from Mother Nature, to be wary of tickborne illnesses. The unusually mild winter and changing climate patterns may make this year a record-holder tickborne disease, with experts predicting a sharp increase in rates of Lyme disease in the Northeast. I’ll be doing my best to make sure that my daughter is at the lowest risk possible for contracting a disabling or lethal illness from one of these bloodsucking pests.
So far this year, I have found five ticks on my daughter-a little more than one per week since the warm weather made its way inland. All of these have been dog ticks, which are the same grotesque arachnids responsible for my friend’s brain damage some twenty years ago. Fortunately, I’ve found and removed these bugs just minutes or hours after she would have come into contact with them, so the pests were not on her skin long enough to transmit the infections.
Tickborne diseases are highly preventable, since most of them will not infect a human until the tick has been latched onto the skin for twenty hours or more. If parents check their children regularly for signs of ticks, the odds of an infection are slim. The National Institutes of Health recommends avoiding woods and brushy areas, but I personally believe that outdoor play is of utmost importance for children, so I use other methods to minimize my daughter’s exposure.
Parents can turn to long, tight-fitting pants and socks to protect children against tick-bites around the ankles. After an outing, give your child a bath and check all parts of the child’s body-especially those that go unseen, such as the such as the armpit, groin, ear, and scalp-for ticks. Remove the tick promptly and watch for any signs of infection or irritation. If you do notice any signs of tickborne illness, promptly contact your child’s pediatrician.
As the season of tickborne illness approaches, we don’t need to wrap our children in bubbles or refuse to let them play outside. We parents do, however, have a responsibility to prevent tick-bites and address them promptly in order to ensure our children’s long-term health. Talk to your pediatrician for further advice on preventing and treating tickborne illnesses in children.