Ticks make early appearance in Colorado
DENVER – Ticks have made an earlier appearance in Colorado’s mountains this year because of early warm weather, and there may be more of them because the mild winter killed fewer of them.
As a result, John Pape, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment who specializes in animal-related diseases, warned campers and other visitors to the state’s High Country to take precautions against ticks because they can transmit diseases to humans.
Pape said cases of tick-borne disease already have been reported in Colorado this spring, indicating their early arrival. He explained, the drought is not expected to affect ticks, which are “fairly drought-resistant,” although drought conditions are expected to affect mosquitoes and fleas.
The good news is there should be fewer mosquitoes because there will not be as much standing water for them. Mosquitoes live three of their four life stages in water. Fleas do not survive well in hot, dry weather unless they are in a protective environment such as a rodent burrow or nest.
“Tick activity usually peaks in the mountains from the middle to the end of May when ticks come out of winter hibernation and are hungry,” Pape said. “Once they have taken a blood meal, ticks burrow back into mountain foliage throughout the summer.”
According to Pape, an average of 25-30 cases of Colorado tick fever have been reported annually in Colorado over the past 10 years. However, this number reflects only a small percentage of the actual cases that occur.
“Colorado tick fever is common,” Pape said. “It is not transmitted person-to-person, and has no specific treatment, so many physicians do not confirm it with blood tests, and cases are not required to be reported to the state.
“Symptoms begin three to five days after the tick bite and include high fever, muscle pain, severe headache and fatigue,” he said. “The symptoms last several days, clear up for a day or two and then reappear for a couple more days. The entire illness lasts about a week.”
Pape said people who become ill following a tick bite should contact their physician to ensure they have Colorado tick fever and not something more serious, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which also is transmitted by ticks.
Pape pointed out that, while ticks can be found anywhere, they tend to concentrate on sunny, southern slopes and in areas with grass and low-brush vegetation. When a person walks by, ticks climb on clothing or bare skin and begin to look for a place to dig in. Embedded ticks can transmit a number of diseases.
“There is no need to avoid the mountains or to curtail outdoor activities because of ticks,” he said, “however, people need to be aware ticks are out there and take a few simple precautions.”
According to Pape, “tick checks” should be conducted regularly, because it usually takes ticks an hour or so to find a place to embed. It takes several hours of feeding before an infected tick can transmit enough of a disease organism to cause illness. Therefore, the quick discovery and removal of ticks can prevent illness.
However, even if a tick is found embedded in the skin, there is no need to panic, Pape explained.
“Unless the tick is embedded in the ear or another sensitive area, the person should simply pull it out,” he said.
Ticks secrete a type of glue that holds them in place while they are feeding. As a result, there may be some resistance, but they will come out with steady pressure, Pape explained. “Avoid twisting or jerking the tick. When the tick has been removed, wash the bite site with soap and water.”
Other methods of tick removal such as oil, fingernail polish or the heat from a match or cigarette are not recommended, as they may cause the tick to rupture or regurgitate into the wound, increasing the risk of disease transmission.
Other tick-borne diseases that are seen but are not as commonly reported in Colorado include Rocky Mountain spotted fever; relapsing fever; ehrlichiosis; tularemia; and tick paralysis.
Two cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever were reported in Colorado in 2001. Also in 2001, there were reports of two cases of tick-borne relapsing fever, a disease associated with staying in rodent-infested cabins or buildings where an unusual species of tick that lives in rodent nests is found.
After Colorado tick fever, relapsing fever is probably the most common tick-borne disease in the state. Two cases of tularemia, one related to a tick bite, were reported by Coloradans in 2001. Lyme disease is rarely ever acquired in Colorado, but cases are reported each year in persons that traveled to areas of the country where it occurs and contracted it there.
– If going into the mountains, wear light-colored clothing, which makes it easier to see the ticks
– Apply a small amount of an insect repellent with DEET, especially on the ankles and legs. (For children, repellents should contain 10 percent or less of DEET .)
– Conduct regular “tick checks,” head-to-toe searches focusing in particular on the neck beneath the hair.
How to Remove a Tick:
– Use tweezers or fingers covered with tissue paper. Grasp the tick where it has entered the skin and slowly pull it out, using firm, steady pressure. If the tick has made its way into the ear or another sensitive body area, consult a physician about removal.
– Avoid twisting or jerking the tick. When the tick has been removed, wash the bite site with soap and water.
– For a free pamphlet on Colorado tick fever or other tick-borne disease information, contact the Department of Public Health and Environment at (303) 692-2700 or visit the Web site at: http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/dc/Zoonosis/zoonosis.asp.
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