How to Keep Kids Safe Outside: What You Need to Know about the Infamous Deer Tick & Lyme Disease

A family exploring in the woods. Photo by: Monika Balciuniene.
DISCLAIMER: This page contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product after clicking a link, we may make a small commission at no extra charge to you. DISCLOSURE: I am not a doctor. This article is not meant as a substitute for medical advice. This post is meant as a guide. Refer to your physician for any medical questions and use your best judgment.

Plan for tick season before the snow melts.

In the Northeast, it always seems like I start seeing and hearing about ticks right around the time meteorological spring begins (March 1). Like clockwork, the snow melted for faux spring, which meant we went for a waltz in the woods. Within an hour of returning home, I found a deer tick crawling on my elbow. Blek. No matter who it attaches to – ticks never cease to disgust me. And somehow, I’m always unprepared for the first tick of the season.

Ticks have become a conversation I have with mom-friends and random people on Facebook at least a couple of times each summer. Recently I realized I’ve become the Dr. Mom of all my mom friends – I get some weird pictures sent to my inbox. Still yet, I find that any time someone encounters a tick, they freeze – then panic. If you’re looking for a no-nonsense, panic-free approach to dealing with ticks, you’ve come to the right place. Whether you’ve come for answers on removing a tick or keeping it off your body in the first place, I’ve got you covered. Pun intended.

EEEK I found a tick! What now?

First things first: DO. NOT. PANIC. Seriously, waste your cortisol and high blood pressure on something legitimate. They’re disgusting, to be sure, but it’s the nymphal ticks that spread the most disease (because you don’t typically see/feel them and they stay attached longer). If you’ve got a big one on your hands, you’re a leg up. The first thing you need to do is determine if the tick is engorged. Then do the obvious thing and remove it. If it’s embedded in your kid or dog, panicking is the worst thing you can do because it’s going to scare them and make removing it more difficult. If it’s embedded in your own skin, just save your heebie-jeebie dance until after you’ve removed it. Trust me on this one. You don’t want to make it wiggle.

Is the tick engorged?

How to determine if the tick is engorged? Does it matter? To start, a tick turns gray if it’s engorged and you can’t see its distinct body parts anymore. It looks more like a very full chia seed. This matters because the risk of a tick transmitting Lyme before it’s been attached for 36 hours is less than 10%1. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but there are other higher-risk things to worry about. For reference, the current risk of dying from cancer is 1 in 7 (14%). COVID-19 is 1 in 12 (8.3%). Most people are not panicking about whether their lunch was organic and how that contributed to their cancer risk (I’m not most people). And luckily, with Lyme disease, death is unlikely and it CAN be treated with antibiotics. It’s good to keep all things in perspective. Removing a tick that is engorged is slightly more complicated just because it’s harder to grasp with tweezers. In my house, we keep “tick twisters” on both floors, in all our first-aid kits, and in our diaper bag. I highly recommend grabbing one moving forward.

Ticks that have recently attached have fully visible body parts.

recently attached tick

How recently engorged ticks appear. Body parts are harder to define and the ticks look plump like overly-full chia seeds.

engorged tick

Proper tick removal

Alright. Get yourself some tweezers, soap, water, and clear tape. You want to get as close as you can to the skin and the base of the tick’s scutum (neck). Essentially, you want to get as close to the mouth parts as possible. If you’re using tweezers, you want to pinch, lift and twist. It’s not going to come out easily. Ticks cement themselves into the skin. I told you they were disgusting. Once it’s out, put it on the clear tape and enclose it. Don’t smush it! You want to be able to check for mouth parts and ID the tick to determine what exactly you’re dealing with. Then wash your skin thoroughly with hot, soapy water. If you’ve got some Isopropyl alcohol kicking around (70% is best), go ahead and swipe the spot with it.

Tick Identification

Ticks out. Skins washed. Now it’s time to ID that bad boy. If you’re in the Northeast, you’re most likely going to come into contact with a black-legged tick (deer tick) or a dog tick. Either can be problematic, but luckily no Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in these parts. Use the photo below to figure out which kind of tick you’ve had the pleasure of handling. If you’re in the Southwestern or Midwestern portion of the US, and you’ve got yourself a dog tick, you run the risk of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (at which point, you really do need to call your provider). Any of the ticks in the photo below carry the risk of causing Anaplasmosis or Ehrlichiosis. The symptoms are similar to Lyme or the flu but occur approximately two weeks after the tick bite occurred.

Tick Free NH and the CDC provide an illustration for identifying ticks. Photo by: CDC

Tick’s out, it’s a deer tick AND there’s a red mark!

That is absolutely normal. A foreign object was embedded in the skin for unknown hours. That red mark is almost definitely NOT the classic bullseye rash, because that takes a few weeks of being infected to develop (and can also appear anywhere on the body, not necessarily the site of the initial bite). The advice my parasitic diseases professor gave yours truly is to outline the red mark with a permanent marker (yuck). If the rash grows outside the original line, you’ve got yourself an erythema migrans rash and should call your PCP. If it doesn’t, mark your calendar for two to six weeks and put it out of your brain. The spot may be sore, in which case Green Salve can help heal the actual bite. If you happen to have some Arnica lying around, it will drastically decrease the soreness.

When should I call my PCP after a tick bite?

Whenever you want! But I advise caution before the two-week mark because they will often prophylactically prescribe doxycycline or other antibiotics. This is actually a solid move in cases where Rickettsial diseases (like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever) are prevalent but questionable with diseases that spread more slowly, are less debilitating, and have a higher chance of recovery with products available on the market. This is typically why I get involved in social media posts in the first place. Prescribing antibiotics without clear need is a large reason for the rise in antibiotic resistance. The test for Lyme disease cannot reliably get a positive result until 4-6 weeks after infection. Unless you have the erythema migrans rash, fever, body aches, facial paralysis, or arthritis2, you’re better off living your best life. Otherwise, you’re probably going to be taking a lot of unnecessary antibiotics.

Keep Your Family Off the Tick Dinner Menu

Of course, you really want to try to avoid coming into contact with ticks in the first place. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid nature entirely. Nature has amazing benefits for everything including eye health and emotional well-being. That being said, ticks are virtually everywhere there are mice. Yes, mice. Mice and other small critters are the primary vectors in the tick life cycle, making the nickname “deer tick” a bit of a misnomer. They’re referred to as “deer ticks” because the second phase of their life cycle (the mating part) involves attaching to a bigger mammal (namely, deer), at which point they are much easier to spot. The larva and nymphs, however, prefer small animals like mice and rabbits. This is where they typically become infected with Lyme in the first place. When it comes to tick prevention, you really want to use a multi-layered approach.

Build a Tick Fortress in Your Yard

A tick vector eating something. Photo by: Alexis Fotos.

There are really only a few options when it comes to effective lawn prevention – tick tubes, some sort of lawn application, and chickens. Tick tubes can be made yourself using old toilet paper rolls, cotton balls, and permethrin. The gist is mice crawl into the tubes, grab the cotton dipped in permethrin, and then use it to build their nests. This means that to achieve complete tick protection, you really need to place these out twice a year before the mice build their nests for their babies. I have not actually used these because I live on over two acres of land and, technically, you need to place them every 10-15 feet. That and my property is surrounded by conservation land so there’s really no controlling the mouse population in that sort of dynamic.

At my house, we opt for a local company to perform a PERIMETER treatment of our yard. I don’t like chemicals in my yard, but I equally do not like picking six or more ticks off each of my dogs every day. The frequency with which we come into contact with ticks drastically increases our chances of developing Lyme disease. This is one of those “choose your battles” things. My parents gift this service to us every year so their grandchildren aren’t eaten alive by ticks and mosquitoes when they are out playing in the yard. I realize this is probably cost prohibitive for most people, especially with inflation.

If you’re looking for something more natural or cost-effective, you could try something like Cedar Mulch granules or EcoLogic Lawn Insect Killer. I personally haven’t used either of these products, so I cannot speak to their efficacy. The EcoLogic lists 98% “Other Ingredients,” so I looked up the Safety Data Sheet. It seems safe for both kids and pets, but do your own due diligence. Most critters seem to detest cedar, so cedar mulch is definitely an option without any health consequences.

Clothing can Prevent Tick Bites

To make ticks easier to spot (and less likely to attach) you should dress your kids (and yourself) in light-colored clothing. Think tan pants and light-colored shirts and socks. I dress my kids almost exclusively in Primary, which means I can easily select clothing that is comfortable, light in color, and minimal in design (this way, ticks aren’t getting lost on the pattern). I’ve seen advertisements for permethrin-treated clothing, but I am not bushwhacking with my 1-3-5-year-olds and I don’t know that I find it fully necessary or cost-effective for our level of exposure. Usually, I dress my kids in light-colored clothing in the spring and summer months, and this feels sufficient to me.

Safe and Effective Tick Repellant

Ticks are opportunists -they literally sit around all day, on the ends of blades of grass and miscellaneous forest debris with their little pinschers in the air waiting for something or someone to walk by. Then hitch a ride and wreak havoc. I don’t want to give them any ideas in the first place, so I use Off! FamilyCare Picardin.

After years of terrible luck with Herbal Armour, I switched to Off! FamilyCare. If you’ve read anything in my Health & Wellness section, you probably realize this is a stretch for me. As a general rule, I avoid chemicals. But when I was pregnant with my second child, that limited the essential oils I could safely use, and I’m also allergic to tree-hole mosquitoes. My second child was due in September, which gave me two options: stay inside all summer or figure something else out. When in doubt, I turn to the Environmental Working Group. I have a high level of distrust in the US government and its non-existent regulations of the chemical industry, so I look to the EWG and EU/Canadian governing bodies, where possible. I was able to find a few articles related to bug spray recommendations and their respective safety. Ultimately, I decided to use Picardin, because I can use a low concentration (10%) and only need to reapply 2-3 times a day for maximum effectiveness. Additionally, Picardin is approved in the EU, whereas DEET is not (due to skin rashes and reported neurological problems in children).

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11/28/2023 01:40 pm GMT

Tick Checks are an Effective Prevention Measure

Lastly, each night you need to perform a tick check on all members of your household. I like to do ours covertly during or immediately after a bath. For little people, this means absolutely checking all their “2000 parts.” I once had a friend whose son ended up with a tick bite in a less-than-desirable location in his diaper area. Older kids can and should check their own privates, but you should still check their hairline, back, and the areas they aren’t fully able to check on their own. If you do find a tick crawling around, enclose it in tape or a plastic baggie and dispose of it as you wish. If it’s mobile, it didn’t bite yet, so you can totally just move on with your life. Once the kids are in bed, take a lesson from Brad Paisley and turn the tick-check with your partner into foreplay. Just kidding. Don’t do that. Take advantage of the kids having fresh air poisoning and get some sleep.

Someone’s still (probably) going to get bitten.

Ultimately, you or someone you love is probably going to get bitten by a tick at some point – no matter how diligent you are. Even if you avoid going outdoors, the chances of someone else bringing one in are real. I’ve definitely found them crawling on sheets and the couch despite our best efforts to mitigate our encounters. The best thing you can do is get yourself a tick twister, save this article to Pinterest, and be aware but not neurotic. Knowledge is power, and with all the insider knowledge I just threw your way, you’ll be well on your way to staying calm during your next tick confrontation. Happy adventuring!

1About Ticks and Lyme Disease |

2CDC Lyme Disease Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) | Lyme Disease | CDC.

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