May is Tick-Borne Disease Awareness Month in Colorado. Ticks are blood-feeding parasites of animals, found throughout Colorado and particularly common at higher elevations.
According to Gov. Jared Polis’ proclamation for the month, tick bites can transmit serious and potentially fatal diseases and conditions.
A 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study also reported that tick-borne diseases doubled in the U.S. during a 13-year period from 2004 to 2016. They accounted for 77 percent of vector-borne diseases during that period, far outpacing mosquitoes and fleas.
In 2017, state and local health departments reported a record number of cases of tick-borne diseases to CDC – 59,249, up from 48,610 reported cases in 2016.
According to Colorado State University, diseases spread by ticks in Colorado include Colorado tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia and relapsing fever.
Colorado tick fever is the most common in the state, according to CSU. A virus causes the fever, and its symptoms are similar to the flu: headaches, fevers and chills and a feeling of fatigue.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is caused by a type of bacterium. It can be a serious disease, potentially life threatening, but is rare with only a couple reported cases in Colorado each year. Early symptoms include headaches, upset stomach and a rash.
Tularemia is also a bacterial disease and can be widespread among wild mammals, like rabbits and prairie dogs. There are only a few cases each year in Colorado.
Tick-borne relapsing fever is also a disease produced by a bacterium. Symptoms include high fever, headache and muscle/joint aches. These symptoms often follow a cyclical pattern, lasting a few days, followed by a symptom-free period with symptoms then reoccurring. The vector of relapsing fever is the soft tick, which is associated with nesting rodents, often in rustic cabins.
Fortunately, Lyme disease is not present in wild animal populations in Colorado and there has never been a confirmed case of Lyme disease originating from a tick bite in Colorado, CSU reports. Coloradans who have been diagnosed with Lyme disease are believed to have been exposed to infected ticks in states where the disease is present.
Monica White, president of the Colorado Tick-Borne Disease Awareness Association and Chaffee County resident, believes she was exposed to Lyme disease when she was going to college in New Hampshire. She said getting a proper diagnosis after she moved to Colorado was difficult.
“People really do need to self-advocate,” she said. “I knew something was wrong because I was listening to my body.”
While May is Tick-Borne Disease Awareness Month, people should be on the lookout for ticks all year near Salida.
“With our milder climate, ticks can be active year-round,” White said.
Ticks are most active in spring and early summer and concentrate where their animal hosts most commonly travel, CSU reports.
There are several precautions people can take to stay safe.
“Prevention is key to avoiding a tick bite and tick-borne diseases,” White said. “If you’re diligent, prevention is the best medicine for sure.”
To avoid coming in contact with ticks, White recommended staying in the center of trails when venturing into the woods. “Most wait passively on a brush for people to pass by,” White said.
Sitting on a log or leaning against a tree could also expose someone to a tick. “They like those crevices,” White said. “Being aware of your environment is very important.”
The CDC also recommends using products that contain permethrin to treat clothing and gear. White said permethrin is “probably the best repellent” for ticks because when they come into contact with the material, they fall off and die.
Several repellents are also recommended for ticks, including DEET, picaridin, IR3535 and oil of lemon eucalyptus.
White said people could also tuck their pants into their socks and wear long sleeves to minimize exposure.
Ticks take several hours to settle and begin feeding, according to CSU, giving people ample time to detect and remove them. The Rocky Mountain wood tick typically takes 12 to 24 hours to start feeding. Therefore, a thorough “tick check” can be an effective alternative to repellents. After walking through areas where ticks might be present, carefully look for and remove any ticks you may have picked up.
White said the best way to remove a tick is to grab it as close to the skin as possible with fine-nosed tweezers and pull it out, making sure you don’t squeeze it too hard and crush the insect.
After removal, White said people can put the tick in an airtight container if they want to get it tested at a lab. Or they can put the tick between a piece of tape and throw it away.
More information on tick-borne diseases can be found at ColoradoTicks.org.