Confessions of a TickGuy

Even TickGuys Screw Up!

With her head on the pillow and eyelids drooping towards closed, my sleepy little 6-year-old granddaughter barely could whisper “Grandpa” while flicking her finger at her ear. In the dimly-lit hotel room, my “TickGuy” instincts did cause me to gently feel both sides of her ear lobe as I tucked her in, but I didn’t pursue it further with a light. In that instant, I must have reasoned that there was little need to stir things up. I mean, they live in a fairly metropolitan ‘burb near Boston. Mostly, busy streets and sidewalks. And it had already been a long day—basketball practice, a half-mile walk home from the gym with Daddy, on sidewalks, then Daddy’s birthday party, before being whisked from the party for this hotel sleepover with Oma and Grandpa. Good night little one…

female blacklegged tick on back of ear

The next morning, after a little grandparent snuggle time and some jumping-on-the-bed excitement with her younger sister, we all went down for some breakfast. There, with her mouth half-full of cereal, she said it again —“Grandpa”, this time with a bit more of an insistent finger-flick of the ear. This time, right there in the brighter light of the restaurant, I pushed her long hair aside and more closely examined both the front and back sides of that ear. And there it was! A female blacklegged tick, firmly attached to the back side of her ear. Sure, I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of these parasites in my career but this one was biting my precious granddaughter—her first! And on my watch.

My heart, and my ego, both sank a little bit in that instant. The one thing I know well, about ticks, and I had failed to protect my darling granddaughter. This was no time though to make a scene, or beat myself up. Even though I had my pointy tweezer in my pocket (like a good scout, a TickGuy is always prepared), I quickly assimilated that the busy restaurant was definitely not the place to send my granddaughter into histrionics. So, we excused ourselves for an “important mission”, and headed back up to the room.

The elevator ride gave me a moment to think…pull on my TickGuy hat so to speak. I knew this little one could be a bit dramatic. In situations like this, most kids her age are. I had even given talks that include best practices in removing ticks from kids. Anecdotally, we’ve learned that young children especially, are more terrified of an adult person coming at them with a pointy tweezer than they are of the attached tick. Maybe that’s been your experience, too.

I always recommend that instead of forcing the issue, a better first step in extracting a tick from a child is to let them hold the tweezer, let them pick small objects off the back of your hand with it, even gently pinch their own skin (with guidance from you, of course). Once they are calm and comfortable with the tweezer, it’s time to explain the tick removal process to the child ( First, wipe the bite site with an alcohol swab, or clean with soap and water. In our case, we had to improvise, so we put a towel around her neck, like a cape, and gently scrubbed with a soapy washcloth. Then, I had her rest her head on my leg while she looked at a storybook. We talked about the story as a way of distracting her attention from what I was doing—bending her ear back, grabbing the tick’s head as close to the skin as possible, from the side so as not to squeeze the tick body, then pulling straight up. The tick was out in a zip, and my granddaughter barely knew we were finished. We looked at the tick together for a second, counted its legs, then took a picture, and sealed it up in a ziplock bag. Even though the tick was likely attached for only about 24 hrs, I still planned to have the tick tested as soon as possible.

This tick encounter had caused my emotions to explode like fireworks. The good news is, my granddaughter is fine – no thanks to that tick though. It was carrying both the Lyme and babesia germs. Getting those tick test results caused my guilt to bubble up again for not checking that night; how well I know that the risk for an infection increases the longer an infected tick is attached and feeding. Waiting overnight to check added another 9 hours of tick feeding time. But then I decided to cut myself some slack; I had learned a couple of valuable lessons with this tick encounter. I’ll now do a tick check even if it seems unlikely that there are ticks in the area. I’ll be more diligent to follow up even subtle leads, like the “Grandpa”- ear touch thing. And I’ll redouble my efforts to educate more kids and parents about best strategies for preventing tick bites.