Reviewed by Lisa Blohm, PhD, MSN, RN
Tick bites are an area of particular horror for me. As a child, I was nervous to the point of obsession about them. All I had to hear regarding the habits of any insect was that they ‘drink your blood,’ and I was instantly scared to death of them.
Tick bites were especially terrifying for me because, unlike a mosquito that takes a nip and flies off, they stay attached to your body until they have had their fill. I have vivid memories of my parents removing full, or partially full ticks, from our dogs. They looked like misshapen grapes with little legs sticking out. The memory still makes me shudder!
It’s More Than Just a Bite
Years later, ticks still make my skin crawl, especially because now I know that their creepiness extends beyond the mere fact that they like to drink your blood — as if that wasn’t bad enough. According to the CDC, ticks carry over 15 known diseases, with cases dispersed throughout the US.
I grew up on 40 acres of beautiful forest. Nature was my childhood. I spent long hours racing through the woods with my sisters, picking berries, hunting mushrooms and playing in our creek. Tick bites, unfortunately, were not uncommon.
The tick bites I experienced as a child were from wood ticks. At some point in the last 20 years, the tick population on our property changed, and we stopped seeing wood ticks. Deer ticks had taken over. My mother tells me that when I was a child there was literally no information on the dangers of disease from these bites and our family doctor dismissed questions and worries regarding them.
My family’s first encounter with Lyme disease was when I was in high school. My little sister became terribly ill from a deer tick bite. Although she received treatment, fifteen years later, she still suffers from complications of chronic Lyme disease. My mom’s health has also been devastated by this terrible disease.
Preventing Tick Bites
Now I have three babies of my own and, while I don’t want to keep them from the nature I grew up with, I have seen firsthand the devastation of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. How does a parent strike a balance between caution and paranoia?
In the case of tick bites, knowledge is power and prevention is key. Keeping ticks off your children can seem like an impossible task (keep in mind that some ticks are the size of the period at the end of this sentence). However, there are some practical ways you can be prepared and, hopefully, avoid a tick bite altogether.
Avoid Tick Habitats
Ticks prefer tall grass, shrubby undergrowth, and brush. Ticks do not fly or drop out of trees (despite some mistaken beliefs). Instead, they just hang out on grass or leaves, waiting for a host to walk past so they can latch on. If you’re walking through the forest, stick to the center of the trails and avoid tall grass and leaf litter.
It’s important to note that ticks can be found in mowed lawns and even in the wood chips on playgrounds. Although this is less common, it is a possibility.
If you are a homeowner, keep your lawn mowed short and well-trimmed. Don’t let bushes and garden shrubs become overgrown. Eliminate areas where deer mice can breed (they are considered the main host for ticks), such as stacked firewood and brush piles.
Creepy Fact: Ticks are not killed by freezing temperatures. They are active any winter day that the ground is not snow-covered or frozen. Surprised? My mother had a tick bite in February while making maple syrup!
Our family has designated clothing for adventures in areas where ticks are numerous. We call them our “ticky clothes”, and the kids are trained to know that they need to wear them.
Our ticky clothes are different than our usual play clothes because they are:
- Lightly colored
- Fit snugly
- Include socks can be worn pulled up over pant bottoms.
For general play in areas where ticks are a rarity, we just wear our normal outdoor play clothes. But all play clothes are laundered with the same methods as our “ticky” clothes – just in case.
Use Tick Repellents
Our family makes up our own tick spray using essential oils. Here is the recipe:
DIY EO Tick Repellent!
- 2 ounces apple cider vinegar
- 2 ounces water
- 20-40 drops essential oils (you can use these oils individually or mix up your own blend: rose geranium, clove, citronella, lemon eucalyptus)
- ½ teaspoon glycerine or 1 tablespoon jojoba oil
Place in a glass or plastic spray bottle. Shake well before each use. Apply to skin or clothing before going outdoors.
Note this CDC report recommends using any of these essential oils as a natural tick repellant: rosemary, lemongrass, cedar, peppermint, thyme, geraniol.
Safety Note: There are differing opinions on the safe use of essential oils with children. It is wise to use extra caution with infants and toddlers.
- None of the oils listed should be used on the skin of children under 2.
- Oils that can be safely used in the repellant and sprayed on the clothing of those under two include: Rose Geranium, Citronella, Lemongrass, Cedar and Clove.
- Oils that should only be used on or near those over the age of six include: Peppermint, Rosemary and all types of Eucalyptus .”
I recently learned about an amazing product! Sawyer Products makes a permethrin-based tick and mosquito repellent that is non-toxic to humans. This product will actually kill ticks! Skin application isn’t harmful, just ineffective, because it is quickly deactivated by the skin. BUT it is an extremely effective treatment for clothing, shoes, tents, backpacks, etc. An application can last 6 weeks, or for 6 washings, or in the case of a tent up to 40 days of direct sunlight.
Shower and Conduct a Thorough Body Inspection
You should always bathe or shower after possible tick exposure. Washing may rinse off ticks that haven’t attached yet.
Make body inspections a habit – even when you don’t think you have been in a tick zone. This hit home for my family when I was putting up my daughter’s hair one morning and noticed a tick on the back of her earlobe. It had been raining for days, and we had hardly been out of the house!
Ticks have their favorite spots to attach to a host, so you should check these very thoroughly.
- Belly button
- Back of knees
- Ears (be sure to check the backs and look in the curves and folds)
- Scalp, paying special attention to the nape of the neck and the sides of the head. Ticks travel up and are programmed to latch on near the head and hair, where the skin is thinner.
Parents should check their children. DO NOT trust them to do a thorough inspection. If possible, adults should have someone help inspect their ‘tick hotspots’. This can be an excellent training exercise for older children to help check their siblings. Four eyes are always better than one!
If you are spending the day outside or camping, periodic checks throughout the day are advised.
How you deal with outdoor clothes is extremely important, especially if you have been in an area where you know (or suspect) ticks are a problem. If you have been outside, don’t wear your clothing inside the house. I view our home as our ‘safe place’ and don’t want to find a tick crawling on the baby because my daughter’s play clothes were left in a heap in the living room.
Here is how I handle “ticky” clothes:
- Remove all clothing – yup strip naked – and immediately launder or place in a garbage bag if you can’t get to it right away. Be careful not to mistake it with the garbage!
- Place clothing in the washer on a hot water heavy-wash cycle. Add 15-20 drops of clove essential oil to (hopefully) kill ticks while washing. Check out this research regarding the effect of clove oil on ticks.
- Dry wet clothes on high heat for 60 minutes. Make sure the clothes are warm and completely dry.
- Clothing that cannot withstand high temperatures may be dried on low heat for 90 minutes. Again, make sure the clothes are thoroughly warm and dry.
Dealing With Tick Bites
If you do, horrifyingly, find a tick that is latched on to you or your child, stay calm! It’s easy to panic and pull it off in a hurry, but that is the worst thing you can do!
When removing a tick, it is essential that you DO NOT squeeze the tick’s stomach and push any ingested blood back into the bloodstream. Also, it’s important to remove the tick completely – you don’t want the head to remain. It’s disgustingly easy to leave the head behind. This puts you at risk for infection.
It is EXTREMELY important that you don’t use essential oils or a match to “startle” them off of you. This can cause the tick to regurgitate (puke) into your bloodstream, and you definitely don’t want that.
So, take some deep breaths, grab a pointed tweezers, and grasp the tick right at its head. Do a gentle quarter turn, and pull gently but firmly. The turn should make the tick release and you can pull it right off.
Now, SAVE THAT TICK! You will want to send it in for testing to see if it is a carrier of Lyme or any other nasty diseases. This is especially important If the tick is engorged (meaning full of your blood – round or inflated looking).A tick that has been attached long enough to become engorged will have already passed on any diseases it is carrying.
We recommend TicKit, because of it’s ease and convenience. The kit includes a removal tool that helps quickly and easily remove ticks the correct way. Simply mail it off as soon as possible and get the results emailed directly to your inbox. Easy! Both our Fitchburg and Sun Prairie stores are now carrying TicKit!!
Signs of Illness
The really scary thing about tick-borne illness is that symptoms can be so mild that they go unnoticed. I cannot stress enough the importance of having the tick tested! You might get a positive result from the lab for an illness you wouldn’t have noticed – an illness with devastating consequences.
Most doctors are relatively uneducated regarding illnesses caused by tick bites. Also, the symptoms are so varied that it can be extremely difficult to diagnose. If you or your child is manifesting symptoms or had a tick test come back positive, don’t count on your family doctor to treat Lyme or other diseases caused by a tick bite. The damage to health can be unimaginable. Find a Lyme literate doctor in your area.
It is believed that a tick must be attached for 12 or more hours to transfer disease. The tick that gave my sister Lyme was only attached for 5-6 hours.
Check out this article on the CDC website for symptoms of tick carried illnesses.
Boost Your Immune System
Now, keep in mind, exposure to a disease does NOT mean you will become sick. If your immune system is strong, it is completely possible to fight it off without even knowing you were exposed. With that thought in mind, here is what I do for our family as an added layer of protection.
During the summer months, I give my kids a daily dose of astragalus. Astragalus is a plant in the legume family and has been known for centuries to be a powerful immune boosting stimulant. It was commonly used in Eastern medicine centuries ago, and studies have proven it’s ability to regulate the immune system.
World-renowned herbalist, Stephen Harold Buhner, states in his book, Healing Lyme, “Astragalus is an essential herb to use all year long at tonic doses if you live in an endemic [Lyme endemic] area. It is exceptionally useful during active infections, especially during early and early-disseminated stages.” He cites research that found astragalus increases interferon-gamma and interleukin-2 levels. Studies with mice have found that the rate of infection by Borrelia spirochetes was much lower if these levels were high. “Keeping levels high will significantly reduce the likelihood of infection. If infection does occur the impact of the disease will be significantly lessened, symptom development will be milder, the whole thing easier to cure.”
This may sound cruel, but I hope I’ve scared you — or at least got your attention. I really feel that you need to be scared to take tick bites seriously. The people that I know that have preventative and safety measures in place are those who know someone who has experienced the devastating results of tick-borne illness.
Remember, prevention and a strong immune system is your most important means of defense!
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Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Healing Lyme. Raven Press, Silver City, NM, 2005.
Disclaimer: The statements made on this page have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are not intended to diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. If a condition persists, please contact your physician or healthcare provider. The information provided is not a substitute for a face-to-face consultation with a healthcare provider, and should not be construed as medical advice.