I love letting my kids play outdoors, run in the forest, stomp in a stream, etc., but around Washington D.C., that comes with a risk: Lyme disease. It was risk I didn’t think much about until my own son got strange rash that turned out to be a tick bite. Does that mean you can’t take your kids outside? No; in fact, I hope this only inspires you to do more wonderful outdoor activities with your family — and to implement a few precautions when you do. Lyme disease its identifiable and treatable with a little information, so here’s what you need to know.
Where Lyme Disease Comes From
Lyme disease is carried by black-legged ticks, which can live pretty much anywhere outdoors: forests, tall grass, shrubs, etc. They actually wait on the tips of leaves or grass with their arms outstretched to grasp onto an animal or person. A tick that finds a person will crawl to a cozy spot such as behind the ear, in the armpit, groin, or the edge of clothing like a sock or sports bra. Then it’ll latch on. According to the CDC, it usually takes more than 24 hours of being attached for a tick to transmit Lyme disease, so if you find one shortly after returning from the forest, you are most likely in the clear. You cannot get Lyme disease form another person, nor a pet, and it cannot be transmitted through breast milk.
Lyme Disease Prevention
The easiest way to avoid tick bites is by putting on bug repellent; many brands note that they repel ticks right on the label. Ticks can be out in the D.C. area by March, so put on repellent even in early spring. Covering well with long sleeves and pants tucked into socks can also help, but ticks can crawl around; personally I’ve found ticks in my hair and behind my ears. This is why you should also do a tick check after outdoor activities. We do this with our kids in the evening at bath time. All the clothes come off and into the hamper, and you do a little scan of the body.
Black-legged ticks are tiny, ranging from the size of a sesame seed to a poppy seed, so they are very hard to find, but once they bite and begin to fill up with blood they get larger, like a watermelon seed that wont wipe off. That’s why tick checks can be so effective. You’ll notice the bite early enough to remove the tick — simply pull it off with tweezers and kill it. Bathing (and washing hair) after a day outdoors is also important for washing away any ticks you might have missed.
Identification: Is it Lyme Disease?
You may have heard of the classic bull’s-eye rash as a clear sign of Lyme, but the tick-bite rash (erythma migrans) can take several forms (or never appear at all). This time of year, watching out for skin rashes is very important; any rash that gets larger over a few days and doesn’t itch is suspect. Take pictures of any skin rash over a few days to check its progression.
Later signs of Lyme seem like the flu: headache, fever and achy joints. So if you start to feel lousy, and you know you’ve had a past rash, you will know to suggest checking for Lyme. Since colds and the flu are more common than Lyme disease, your doctor may not think to test unless you mention your suspicion. Blood tests are most accurate more than two weeks after a tick bite.
Testing a tick for Lyme disease is not very reliable, so don’t bother trying. If you do find a tick, take a picture of it next to a coin or ruler so your doctor can verify if it is the kind of tick that can transmit the disease – then kill it using rubbing alcohol or flushing it down the toilet. Some people choose to buy a tick kit or make your own kit for extra precaution.
Lyme Disease Treatment
Fortunately, Lyme disease is very treatable. Most people are fully cured with antibiotics and never have symptoms again. Many people fear that Lyme disease is with you for life, but this myth stems from stories of people who didn’t know they had the disease and went years without treatment. Left untreated, Lyme disease can have permanent effects like nerve damage. This is why preventing, identifying and treating it is so important.
Good news! If you find a tick bite right away but suspect it may have been attached for more than 24 hours you can treat for Lyme disease with a single dose of antibiotics. The treatment once Lyme has set in, though, is a course of antibiotics that is much longer than normal, around 21 days for a child. And it’s important to stick to a regular dose to be sure the disease is gone.
With that, go on, play outside! There are some great ideas to get kids outdoors around Washington D.C. like exploring nature or visiting gardens. Plus find some great nature activity ideas – just remember the bug spray and tick checks!
Note: No, I’m not a doctor — I’m a mom who’s been reading everything I can about Lyme disease for the past month. I’m summarizing the most important details so you don’t have to Google it all yourself. If you have questions consult the CDC directly and definitely ask your pediatrician!
This article was originally published in June 2019 and was updated for republication.