As the weather warms and both humans and pets spend more time outside, they often return home with unwelcome hitchhikers – those tiny but persistent little blood-feeding parasites called ticks.
Although Washington state is not a bastion of tick-borne disease, it does provide habitat for a variety of ticks, some of which can cause disease in humans. Knowing your ticks, removing them safely, and watching for any signs of infection is important for those who venture outdoors – or who have pets who do – in tick-prone areas.
Three main tick species are found in eastern Washington; the fourth, the western black-legged tick, which can transmit Borrelia burgdorferi – the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease – is found primarily in western Washington.
Methow Valley recreationists are most likely to encounter Rocky Mountain wood ticks. These wood ticks live in “woodland areas, medium height grasses and shrubs between wetlands and woods, and sunny or open areas along the edge of woods,” according to the state Department of Health (DOH) website. The American dog tick prefers the same habitat. The soft tick, which can transmit tick-borne relapsing fever (which causes high fever, headaches, and muscle and joint aches), lives in rodent-infested cabins in mountainous areas, which is another reason to abandon the romantic notion of camping in an old trapper’s lodge; the tick prefers you to a rodent.
Preventing tick bites is the best way to avoid tick-borne diseases. The DOH offers the following suggestions:
• Know where to expect ticks. Many ticks live in grassy, brushy or wooded areas. When possible, avoid wooded and brushy areas with tall grass and leaf litter. Walk in the center of trails, particularly in spring and summer when ticks feed.
• Wear appropriate clothing. When in tick habitats, wear light-colored, tightly woven long pants and long-sleeve shirts. Tuck your pant legs into socks or boots, and your shirt into your pants. This helps keep ticks on the outside of your clothing where you can spot them more easily.
• Use tick repellent when necessary, and carefully follow instructions on the label.
• Check clothing, gear, and pets after being areas with ticks. Ticks can hitch a ride into your home on clothing and pets, then attach to you or a family member later. Carefully examine coats, camping gear, daypacks, and pets.
• Shower soon after being outdoors. Showering within two hours of coming can reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease and may be effective in reducing the risk of other tick-borne diseases. Showering can wash off unattached ticks and it is a good opportunity to do a tick check.
• Check your body and your child’s thoroughly for ticks. Carefully inspect areas in and around the hair, head, neck, ears, underarms, inside the belly button, around the waist, between the legs, and behind the knees. Ticks can be very small before they feed – look for what may appear like a new freckle or speck of dirt. Continue checking for two to three days after returning from areas with ticks.
Should you find an embedded tick, the DOH recommends that you “Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Avoid removing the tick with bare hands. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this may cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouthparts with clean tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily, leave it alone, and let the skin heal. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.”
If you develop a rash, fever, or flu-like illness within several weeks of removing a tick, the DOH says, see your health care provider. Tell the health care provider about your recent tick bite, when the bite occurred, and where you most likely acquired the tick. If possible, save the tick for identification.
Although neither the State Public Health Laboratories nor the CDC routinely test ticks for disease, you can mail your tick – which must be dead – to the DOH for identification. Should your tick be a common carrier of disease, that information may help identify a tick-borne disease if you develop symptoms. The Tick Identification Submission Form and mailing instructions can be found at http://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/Pubs/333-179.pdf.
For more information about ticks, visit http://www.doh.wa.gov/CommunityandEnvironment/Pests/Ticks.