Tick season is here, and a moist spring may mean there will be more of them this year. To find out what you need to know to avoid tick-born illnesses when you venture into the outdoors, we spoke to Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state communicable disease epidemiologist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Tick season has started, right?
Yes, it is spring, almost summer, so this is tick season in Colorado. There are lots of different tick species, in Colorado and throughout the U.S. The types of ticks you have in your community are really what determines what types of infections or diseases you can potentially get from them. There are a variety of them. One of the most common ones we think about is Lyme Disease, and that is spread by a tick we actually do not have in Colorado, so Lyme Disease is not something you will catch from a tick here.
What we do have here are other types of infections. We have an infection called Colorado tick fever, there’s a less common infection called Rocky Mountain spotted fever, another infection called Tularemia, another called tickborne relapsing fever. There’s also an unusual illness called tick paralysis. That’s actually not an infection, it’s a reaction to tick saliva that can occur.
This season in particular, we have been hearing quite a bit from our hiking community and our medical providers in the state that they are seeing more ticks than usual. We know ticks like moisture, so when there is a moist spring, that does seem to favor them. Hopefully ticks don’t deter folks from enjoying our beautiful outdoors, but there are some things you can do to decrease your risk.
Where are humans likely to encounter ticks?
We see ticks in the plains as well as at higher elevations. The area you’re in determines what ticks you’re going to see. The tick we see more commonly at elevation is the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick. The ticks we see at lower elevations are going to be dog ticks. We have the Brown Dog Tick and the American Dog Tick in Colorado.
They tend to be in fields and wooded areas. You’re not going to find ticks on the top of Mount Bierstadt, but you will see them above 10,000 feet.
We seem to recall being told in Boy Scouts a long time ago that when a tick attaches to you, you’re not supposed to pluck it off because it will break apart with the head remaining attached; you’re supposed to light a match, blow it out and touch the tick with the hot end. Is that true?
I think you may have learned an old wives tale. Really the best strategy is to get a pair of tweezers, and you actually want to wear gloves to do this because just handling the insect or crushing it, you can expose yourself to the germs they carry. Put those tweezers on the tick as close to your skin as your can and pull gently straight back. You don’t want to twist, you don’t want to use a match, you don’t want to use other substances. It’s really just pulling it straight out.
What are the ticks looking for?
They are feeding on human or animal blood.
How do we minimize our risk of picking up ticks?
It helps to stay on trails that are trimmed back, staying out of fields and wooded areas when possible. Probably even more important is wearing long pants and sleeves. Ideally, you want clothes to be light colored so you can see any ticks that might be present. You can pre-treat clothing with Permethrin, that’s a tick repellent. There are also spray repellents out there.
Perform tick checks on yourself, any kids in the outdoors with you, and also your pets. Especially for kids, it’s important to look at the hair line because ticks can hang out on the scalp or along the neck.
Remove ticks promptly. The tick isn’t going to transmit illness unless it attaches.The longer the tick is attached, the greater the risk of transmitting an infection.
Then what? What kinds of symptoms should I watch for?
There are a number of different types of infections or illnesses, but most of them cause fever, so watching for flu-like symptoms or a fever for several weeks if you’ve had a tick attached is a good measure to take. You can always contact your health care provider if you are concerned or having any unusual symptoms that you think could be related to tick exposure.
Finally, with warm weather here, what about West Nile Virus, which is carried by mosquitoes?
Typically, the surface water needs to warm up a little bit before the mosquitoes that cause West Nile Virus start to hatch, but that can start to happen early in the summer. I don’t believe we’ve had any West Nile detections so far. Typically, it occurs a little more in the middle of the summer.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get outdoors news sent straight to your inbox.