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Ticked Off

Colorado Ticks and Tick Disease (is Lyme disease on the list?)

Well here’s a not-so-fun fact: Colorado is home to some 30 species of ticks. Who knew? Ticks are arachnids, creatures with eight legs, two body segments, and no wings or antennae. They feed on the blood of their hosts, including us humans. These tiny parasites are attracted to us by our exhaled carbon dioxide, and infected ticks can transmit any number of tick diseases with a bite we’ll probably never feel... Lovely.

According to W.S. Cranshaw and F.B. Peairs, PhD entomologists and professors with Colorado State University, and authors of a CSU Extension article about Colorado ticks, the Rocky Mountain wood tick and the American dog tick are the most common ticks associated with people in our state. “Colorado tick fever is by far the most common tick-transmitted disease of the region,” say Cranshaw and Peairs. “Despite its name, Rocky Mountain spotted fever is quite rare here.” Other tick diseases include Lyme disease, tularemia and relapsing fever.

Ticks are particularly common at higher elevations, say Cranshaw and Peairs. “They are often poised at the top of vegetation so they can readily cling to passing animals. … At each stage of development (larva, nymph, and adult), the tick attaches itself to a host, feeds for several days, becomes extremely bloated, then drops off the host.”

Common species of ticks, say Cranshaw and Peairs, are active in late spring and early summer. “If the tick has not found a host by the time the hot summer temperatures arrive, it seeks cover under leaves and remains dormant until the next year. Peak periods of tick activity can begin as early as March during warm seasons. They usually subside by mid-July.”

So, let’s say it’s a beautiful blue-sky summer day in Colorado’s high country, and there you are at about 8,000 feet elevation, hiking along a picturesque mountain trail. You climb on a granite outcropping for a picture with your hiking buddy, and you cut off the trail a few times to let your dog have a drink from a nearby stream. You take a lunch break at your waterfall destination, finding a comfy place to have a seat and take in the panorama. You’re completely unaware of the tiny passenger you’ve picked up along the way, and you don’t think to do a head-to-toe check back at the car or before jumping in the shower at home.

Anywhere from 1-14 days later, you begin to develop symptoms that might include fever and chills. According to the CDC, “The most common symptoms of Colorado tick fever (CTF) are fever, chills, headache, body aches, and feeling tired. Some patients have sore throat, vomiting, abdominal pain, or skin rash. About half of patients have a ‘biphasic’ fever. This means they have several days of fever, feel better for several days, and then have a second short period of fever and illness.

“Most people who become ill have mild disease and recover completely. However, weakness and fatigue may last several weeks. In rare cases, some patients may develop more severe illness that affects the central nervous system with symptoms that include stiff neck and confusion.”

There are no medications to treat a CTF virus infection, says the CDC. People with severe CTF illnesses may need to be hospitalized, with treatment including IV fluids and pain- and fever-reducing medications.

Another tick-borne illness, Lyme disease, can cause serious malaise and is transmitted by infected blacklegged ticks (also called deer ticks), found mostly in the eastern part of the US. There’s been some debate about whether Lyme disease is in Colorado, and though some residents have been diagnosed with it, no human cases have been confirmed to have originated here. Early detection of Lyme disease can be difficult. Some people develop a telltale red “bull’s eye” rash, and a blood test exists that detects Lyme disease antibodies, but if the body hasn’t developed sufficient antibodies when the first sample is taken, the disease may go undiagnosed, warranting a second test. In 2015, 95% of confirmed Lyme disease cases were reported from 14 eastern states.  

How to protect yourself from tick bites

The CDC advocates protecting yourself throughout the year but especially during the warmer months when ticks are most active. They recommend the preventive measures below:

 Avoid ticks by walking in the center of trails and staying out of brushy areas with high leaf and grass litter. Ticks are usually found on brush from ground level to about three feet up

 Wear long sleeves and long pants to minimize exposure, pulling socks over the bottom of pant legs.

 Use a repellent that has at least 20 percent picaridin, DEET or IR3535 on exposed skin. Follow the instructions carefully, avoiding contact with your eyes, mouth or hands.

 Apply a product containing 0.5 percent permethrin to clothing and gear.

 Visit the website of the Environmental Protection Agency to choose the repellant best for you.

 Shower quickly after coming indoors to find and wash off ticks on your skin.

Do a full body check to make sure no ticks remain. Parents should check children, being careful to look under the arms, inside the navel, in and around the ears, behind the knees, around the waist, between the legs and in the hair.

 Check for ticks on gear and pets because the insects can attach to a person later.

 Wash clothing in hot water, and then tumble them dry on high heat for at least ten minutes or until dry.

How to remove a tick

The Rocky Mountain wood tick typically takes 12-24 hours to start feeding, which means you have time to find and remove it.

Grasp the tick with blunt tweezers as close to the skin as possible. Pull the tick slowly and steadily, straight away from the skin. Wash the site with soap and apply rubbing alcohol.

Check your pets carefully and often, use flea and tick powders, dips or collars, and wash dog bedding .

When you get home from the high country, throw your clothes in the dryer on hot for 10 minutes to kill any hitchhiking ticks.

Did you know

Homemade tick repellents can be made using 1 cup water, 2 cups apple cider vinegar, and several drops of essential oils (rosemary, peppermint, lemongrass, thyme).

Once you’ve been infected with tick fever, you likely have long-term immunity to that strain.

A number of new tick (and mosquito) diseases are emerging, with warmer weather patterns being a suspected culprit.