How to prevent tick bites—and, if necessary, treat them

By | July 16, 2019

Summer is upon us, and with the change of season comes fun in the sun, long lazy days, and unfortunately, tick bites. If you have noticed an increase in tick spottings in your area, you aren’t alone—the tick population, and the diseases they transmit, are on the rise

If you’re like many parents, this information is enough to make you want to wrap your children in bubble wrap and stay indoors till winter. But take heart—effective tick-bite prevention is possible, and should infection occur, treatment is available. “The general prognosis when treated early is good,” says Dr. Sylvia Owusu-Ansah, a pediatric emergency medicine physician who works in Pennsylvania, which is leading the U.S. in Lyme disease cases. “Tick-borne illnesses can progress to illnesses that affect the heart and nervous system, which can lead to poor prognosis and possible death, but [that] does not happen too often.” 

The keys to combating tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis, and a variety of other infections transmitted by ticks are: prevention, early diagnosis, and prompt treatment.

Before the Bite

The best way to stay healthy is to not get bitten at all. “Blacklegged ticks (one of the biggest offenders for disease transmission) like wooded/brushy areas and will sit on vegetation, waiting for a person or animal to come into contact with them,” says Dr. Curtis Russell, senior program specialist at Public Health Ontario, a leading organization working in the area of vector-borne diseases in Ontario. 

But it’s not just when you go for a hike that you should worry. These areas can include urban gardens and parks, according to Dr. Aileen M. Marty, a professor in the area of infectious diseases at Florida International University. In some areas, ticks are prevalent even in yards and other common frequently visited areas.

“Most people get infected in the summer months as that’s when the blacklegged ticks [also known as deer ticks] in the immature or nymph stage are most abundant,” says Dr. Russell. “These ticks are extremely small, about the size of a poppy seed, and are really hard to notice.” Which is why it’s important to take precautions when going outdoors.

For non-chemical protection, Dr. Russell recommends wearing light-colored, long-sleeved shirts and pants tucked into socks so that ticks are more noticeable and have to crawl farther before getting to your skin. He also suggests bathing as soon as you return home and washing your clothes. 

“If a tick is attached, it takes at least 24 hours for a blacklegged tick (if it is infected with the Lyme disease-causing bacteria) to transmit the bacteria to you,” he says. “Taking a shower once you come in from outdoors increases the likelihood of washing off a tick before it has a chance to attach to you and possibly transmit the bacteria. Running your clothes through the dryer for 60 minutes will also help to kill any ticks on your clothing.”

While many “home remedy” bug repellants are widely circulated on the internet, they are usually not effective enough against ticks. Dr. Owusu-Ansah recommends using repellent that contains 20% or more of DEET, picaridin/icaridin, or IR3535 on exposed skin. She also suggests treating clothing and equipment such as boots, pants, socks, and tents with permethrin (0.5%).

Dr. Marty stresses the importance of also protecting pets from ticks, both for their own health and to keep them from bringing ticks into contact with humans. Your veterinarian can provide you with the steps to take.

Even with showering, daily tick-checks are also important, alone or preferably with help, “especially under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and on the hairline and scalp,” says Dr. Owusu-Ansah.

After the Bite

If you or your child happens to get a tick, removing it promptly is key. To safely remove an embedded tick, Dr. Owusu-Ansah and the Centers for Disease Control recommend:

  1. Using fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. (There are specialized tick removing tools available online if you’d prefer.) Avoid use of nail polish, petroleum jelly or heat to detach the tick from the skin.
  2. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens remove the mouthparts with clean tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth parts easily, leave them alone and let the skin heal.
  3. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water. If possible, try to save the tick for identification or testing should symptoms arise.

If infection sets in

Not all tick bites require medical attention or result in illness, but there are symptoms you should look out for after a tick bite occurs.

“Common symptoms for most tick-borne illnesses are flu-like symptoms,” says Dr. Owusu-Ansah. These can include fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, and fatigue. 

With some infections—such as Lyme or Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF)—a rash may not always appear. But if it does, it will look different depending on the illness. For Lyme and Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI), this rash takes on a bull’s-eye appearance and can be one of the first symptoms to appear (three to 30 days after infection with Lyme). 

The rash that comes with RMSF can vary. According to the CDC, a rash will most often begin two to five days after the onset of fever. The red to purple rash that is associated with RMSF isn’t usually seen until the sixth day or later, and only in 35-60% of patients. To see photos of these rashes, and rashes caused by other tick-borne illnesses, see the CDC’s guide here.

The usual course of treatment for tick-borne infection is antibiotics. Which antibiotic and how much depends on the patient, the infection, the severity, and the symptoms. “For the skin rash, we typically start patients 12 years of age [and older] on doxycycline but will use amoxicillin as an alternative, and azithromycin as a third option,” Dr. Marty says. “For children, we start with amoxicillin.” 

If you have symptoms present and think your tick bite may have led to infection, see your doctor for a treatment plan.