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Jennifer L.W. Fink
Registered Nurse

Lyme Disease in Babies

This tick-borne illness is more common in some parts of the country than others. We’ve got the scoop on how to prevent Lyme disease — and what to do if baby does get it.

What is Lyme disease in babies?

Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness caused by a tiny bacterium (called Borrelia burgdorferi, in case you really wanted to know). Black-legged ticks are carriers; they pick up the bacterium when they bite an infected mouse or deer, and can transmit the disease to a human if they bite them.

The disease was first noticed in Connecticut in 1975, near the town of Lyme. It’s still more common in the upper Atlantic states, the Midwest and on the West Coast, especially in and around wooded areas.
Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose because early symptoms may be vague or nonexistent, and infection can progress over a number of years. It can cause a fever, rash, fatigue, joint pain, heart problems and muscle weakness.

In most cases, though, Lyme disease can be treated before the infected person experiences too many bad effects. “There’s a lot of Lyme hysteria out there,” says Jeffrey Kahn, MD, director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. “It’s overblown. For the most part, Lyme disease is an easily treatable disease.”

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease in babies?

The classic symptom of Lyme disease is a “bull’s-eye” rash — a circular rash with a red center, white middle and red border. The problem is that the rash isn’t always obvious. “There are a number of presentations of Lyme disease where the rash isn’t recognized,” Kahn says. “It could be on baby’s scalp, underneath the hair,” for example. And sometimes there isn’t a rash at all — instead there could be a swollen joint. “It’s usually the knee,” adds Kahn. “The joint is very swollen but not particularly painful.”

Early Lyme disease can also cause easily overlooked flu-like symptoms, including swollen glands, fatigue and mild fever. If your child develops flu-like symptoms — or a rash — days after you notice a tick on him, take him to the doctor.

Are there any tests for Lyme disease in babies?

A blood test can be used to check for the antibodies to the Lyme bacterium — if baby has them, he’s infected. But it takes awhile for the body to make those antibodies, so blood tests are most accurate four weeks or so after infection.

History is really important in the diagnosis of Lyme disease, so be sure to let baby’s doctor know where he’s been and what symptoms you’ve noticed. A diagnosis of Lyme disease is much more likely if you picked a tick off your toddler during a camping trip in Minnesota than if you live in the city and are wondering what his rash could mean.

How common is Lyme disease in babies?

Not very common, because most babies and toddlers aren’t independently mobile or spending a lot of time in the woods or tall grass. Young kids can catch the disease from ticks that hitch a ride inside the house on family pets, though. “Occasionally, we’ll have a baby come in who had a tick on them because they were rolling around with their dog or because the dog was sitting next to them on the floor,” Kahn says.

How did my baby get Lyme disease?

Your child has to be bitten by an infected tick to get Lyme disease. That doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily see the tick, though. It’s definitely possible for your child to suffer a tick bite entirely under your radar. (If you spend any time in tick territory, though, it’s a good idea to conduct full-body tick checks at the end of the day, just in case.)
It’s also important to note that not every tick has Lyme disease. So even if your child does get bitten by a tick, it doesn’t mean he’ll definitely get Lyme disease.

What’s the best way to treat Lyme disease in babies?

Antibiotics are highly effective. If you suspect Lyme disease — if you’ve noticed a tick on your child or have seen other symptoms, especially after spending time in areas where Lyme disease is common — take your child to a doctor, who can monitor your child over a period of weeks to check for infection. If your child’s blood tests continue to come back negative four to six weeks after exposure to a tick, he’s not infected. But if the tests come back positive, the doc can prescribe simple antibiotics that will adequately treat the disease.

What can I do to prevent my baby from getting Lyme disease?

Cover up! If you and baby are going to be out in a natural area where Lyme disease is prevalent, dress him in long pants and long sleeves; tuck the pants into his socks to minimize the amount of exposed skin. When hiking, stay on the beaten path; ticks like to live in the underbrush. Insect repellents containing DEET can also help prevent tick bites, but be careful when using DEET on your children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, DEET should not be used on babies younger than two months old and should be applied carefully to kids older than two months. (Avoid the hands! Kids like to suck on them — and DEET is not safe to ingest!)
You should also inspect baby’s skin for ticks after spending time in areas where Lyme disease is present. If you notice one, carefully remove it and notify baby’s doc. He’ll monitor your child for 30 days, just in case.

What do other moms do when their babies have Lyme disease?

“My son just had this. He had the bull’s-eye rash on his arm, and that’s how they diagnosed him. He had no other symptoms other than a low-grade fever, so they gave him a 14-day antibiotic three times per day, and the rash cleared up, and he has been symptom-free ever since. If you catch it while it’s still a rash and the person has relatively few symptoms, that means it’s been caught early, and this is the best thing that can happen.”

Are there any other resources for Lyme disease in babies?

American Academy of Pediatrics’ HealthyChildren.org

US National Library of Medicine

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Bump expert: Jeffrey Kahn, MD, director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Children’s Medical Center Dallas