There’s a good reason something as teeny-tiny as a tick can cause such big-time stress: The number of folks who contract a tick-borne disease in the U.S. each year has more than doubled in the past two decades. Right now, it’s estimated that roughly 476,000 Americans become infected with tick-borne Lyme disease annually. Adding to the scaries: The CDC recently warned about tick-borne meat allergy, called alpha-gal syndrome (AGS). Yikes! Read on to learn why there’s a surge in tick bites and tick-borne illnesses—plus how to keep your family safe from ticks.

Why are ticks so bad this year?

One big reason ticks, tick bites, and tick-borne disease are on the rise is our warming climate. The trend of brief and mild winters we’ve experienced lately has made tick season last longer. Plus, many ticks thrive in humidity, so warmer and wetter seasons bring on more ticks. And since more and more parts of the world are hotter and more humid than ever, ticks have a much wider range of hospitable locations where they can live than ever before. Not to mention, warm, wet weather also means more leafy ground cover for deer, mice, and other animals to enjoy—and more opportunities for ticks to feast on these hosts!

Tick Bites on Kids: Spotting Lyme Disease

The biggest tick-trauma everyone knows about is Lyme disease, which is the most common tick-borne disease in the U.S. It’s widely reported that tick-borne Lyme disease hits 300,000+ Americans every year, but new estimates put that number to nearly 500,000! Lyme disease is an illness caused by borrelia bacteria, which is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick. The infection can lead to problems with the skin, joints, heart, and even brain.

Once bitten by an infected tick, the bacteria causing Lyme disease usually take 24 to 48 hours to “swim” from the tick’s gut to the saliva and then enter our bodies. The first sign of a problem may be finding the tick still attached, but often the tick feeds and then drops off. The more typical first sign of infection is a red “target” rash—a circle of red skin with a central clearing that grows slowly from 2 to 12 inches—which appears 1 to 3 weeks after the bite. That said, 20 to 30% of those infected never see this “classic” bullseye rash (aka erythema migrans, EM) or even knew they had a tick bite!

If you’re vacationing or living in an area with ticks, it’s a good idea to remember other Lyme disease signs, like muscle aches, headaches, joint and muscle pain, and fever. Another, symptom of Lyme disease is droopiness of one side of your child’s mouth…indicating a nerve palsy.

With Lyme disease, the good news is that the earlier the tick is removed and treatment begins, the better the chance of a total cure.

More Tick-Borne Diseases

Besides Lyme disease, ticks carry a few other serious—potentially fatal—diseases that are transmitted through tick bites.

  • Alpha-gal syndrome (AGS): Dubbed an “emerging public health problem,” AGS is a type of food allergy that makes people allergic to red meat and other products made from mammals. Symptoms may include hives, itchy rash, nausea, heartburn, diarrhea, cough, shortness of breath, drop in blood pressure, and/or swelling of the lips, throat, tongue, and eyelids. In America, most of these allergies begin with the bite of the lone star tick, which are more common in the southeastern U.S. It’s estimated that as many as 450,000 people are affected by AGS in America.

  • Ehrlichiosis: This tick-borne disease is half as common as Lyme and occurs mostly in the southeastern and south central U.S. Fatigue and flu occur 1 to 2 weeks after a bite. Serious cases can lead to breathing and bleeding problems, as well as organ failure. Most children with ehrlichioses who are treated with antibiotics completely recover within 1 to 2 weeks.

  • Babesiosis: This tick-borne illness, also called Redwater fever, is found mostly in coastal Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey (and their offshore islands). However, cases have also been reported in Georgia, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. Many people have no symptoms, others report a bit of “flu.” Rarely, Babesiosis can lead to hemolytic anemia, a serious blood condition. More often, babesiosis goes away on its own in 1 to 2 weeks.

  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: This tick-borne illness hits visitors to southeast Arizona and Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and North Carolina—the so-called “Tick Belt.” Infection happens after a tick bite from a wood or dog tick and can enter the body after just a few hours of being bitten. Common symptoms include fever, headache, and vomiting. And, after a couple of days, they often show a spotted rash that classically starts round the hands and feet…and is one of the very rare types of rashes that even shows up on the palms and soles. As with Lyme, antibiotics usually provide a quick cure.

  • Powassan: This newer tick-related problem is quite rare but has been noted in the northeast and Great Lakes regions. Fortunately, fewer than 100 cases have been reported. This viral infection is transmitted very quickly—15 minutes of a bite—and it causes a life-threatening illness with encephalitis and the risk of permanent neurological damage.

How to Prevent Tick Bites on Babies and Toddlers

The best way to protect your family from Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases is basic tick prevention! So, when spending time in a wooded area or other area known for ticks, be sure your family takes these steps:

  • Know where ticks live. Ticks reside in grassy, brushy, and wooded areas—and on animals. That means spending time camping, hiking, gardening, hunting, or walking the dog can put you in close contact with ticks.

  • Wear the right clothes. If you’re going through a grassy or wooded area, wear long clothing that covers most of the body, tuck pant cuffs into your socks to keep ticks from sneaking in from the grass, and wear a hat to keep ticks from dropping onto your head.

  • Use insect repellents. Bug sprays that contain 30% DEET are best for warding off ticks on children and teens. Spray your child’s shoes, socks, and pant legs, rather than directly on their skin. Never use tick repellent on babies under 2 months of age. (Permethrin-containing products are good tick repellents to apply to clothing, as well. Permethrin does not work on skin, just clothing!)

  • Perform regular tick checks. Look for ticks on your bodies, your clothes, and your pets, too. Ticks can move from one warm body to another! Removal of ticks within 36 hours can prevent Lyme disease.

  • Bathe soon after being outside. Showering within two hours of coming inside has been shown to reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease—and may be effective in reducing the risk of other tick-borne diseases.

  • Travel with tweezers. Bring along a fine-tip tweezer on your trip…just in case you need to remove a tick from a child, animal, or yourself.

How to Check for Ticks

While most tick bites don’t require any medical treatment, it’s important to inspect your children for ticks either before they come into the house from playing outdoors—or right before bathtime. Check their whole body for hard specks of brown, including their hair, scalp, ears, neck, under arms, and even inside their belly buttons. Ticks love to hide in warm, cozy places! While it’s true ticks are small, research in the journal Pediatrics in Review found that approximately 75% of folks who recognize a tick bite, then remove the critter within 48 hours.

Here’s help spotting a black-legged tick:

  • Eight legs

  • Flat, broad oval body that’s longer than it is wide

  • Dark, reddish-brown abdomen

  • Orangish brown body with dark legs, mouth, and scutum, which looks like a little shield on their back

  • An unfed adult female is about 1/8 inches long, about the size of a sesame seed

  • A baby tick, aka nymph, is roughly 1/16 inches long, or the size of a poppy seed or a pinhead (nymphs and adult females are the ones most likely to bite you)

How to Remove a Tick from a Child

Found a tick? Use a fine tweezer to pull it out, but ALWAYS grab the tick by the mouth or head—as close to your skin as possible—and pull it out firmly and slowly. (If you need to, use a magnifying glass to see the tick clearly.) You can also use the edge of a credit card to scrape off a small tick.

Don’t twist the tick, rock it from side to side, use matches, or try to suffocate the tick with Vaseline! None of these tick removal strategies work and they can make matters worse.

Once you’ve removed the tick, put the creature in a little container to save it. (Do this in case your kiddo gets sick, and the tick needs to be evaluated for illness.) Then, clean the bite area with soap and water…and wash your hands, too! Finally, apply an antibiotic ointment on the bite.

While the risk of contracting Lyme disease after a deer tick bite is still relatively low, it remains very important to not only check and remove ticks from yourself—and your kids—but to be aware of the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

When to Call the Pediatrician About a Tick Bite

There’s no need to panic if you spot a tick on your child. Instead, you should remove the tick and clean the area, but reach out to a healthcare provider if…

  • You’re unable to remove the tick.

  • Your kiddo has a fever or rash within 4 weeks of the tick bite.

  • Your child’s bite looks infected.

  • Your child has trouble breathing or swallowing.

  • Your child has a rapid, weak pulse.

  • Your little one feels dizzy or lightheaded.

  • You’re worried that your child has a tick-borne illness.

Your child may need lab tests and may receive a prescription antibacterial medication, usually doxycycline, if it turns out that they were exposed to Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme disease, or another tick-borne illness.


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About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.