After living in Michigan, Darin Radatz hoped his move to Colorado would be a much-needed break from ticks.
“My first couple years here, I never saw a single tick and I'm spending multiple months every summer all throughout the Colorado Trail,” said Radatz, the field operations manager for the Colorado Trail Foundation, which helps maintain the 567-mile trail between Denver and Durango.
That all changed this month, when he found one crawling on the wall in his home in Chaffee County. After that, he has heard from other people in the area about an increase in tick sightings.
“People out here [are] basically saying the same thing: ‘I've lived here for a while, for decades, and never seen a tick until this year,’” Radatz said. The people he’s spoken to have seen many ticks already this year, he continued.
That sentiment has been shared on social media, including on local Colorado subreddits, and hiking enthusiast Facebook groups. Many pose the question: Is it a big tick year?
Emma Harris, a research scientist at Colorado State University specializing in vector-borne infectious diseases, studies ticks as part of her field of study. She said it’s hard to say whether ticks are more prevalent this year.
“It's pertinent to keep in mind that we are going into their area, and these ticks have particular times of the year that they are going to peak. And that's happening right now,” Harris said. “If you stay on the trail, you should be good to go. But if you meander off the trail, or if your dog goes off trail just for a few seconds into these high grass areas, that is the prime location for these ticks to be present, especially if you're hiking in the early morning to avoid the heat.”
While Harris is unsure if the tick population is booming this year, she does know this: Climate change does affect tick seasons.
“We do know overall with these increasing or lengthened warmer times that we are going to encounter ticks more,” she said. “To what degree, is still up in the air.”
The Environmental Protection Agency has found that climate change, among other factors, has contributed to the expanded range of ticks. Places like Canada, where ticks previously had no presence, are seeing an increase in Lyme disease risk due to warming temperatures.
Are Coloradans at risk of Lyme disease?
Ticks can carry a bacteria that causes Lyme disease, an illness that can result in arthritis and tissue damage if left untreated. The blacklegged tick, deer tick, and the western blacklegged tick are the most common transmitters of the disease.
Fortunately for Coloradans, ticks found in the state are incapable of passing on the bacteria that causes Lyme. And there has not been a confirmed case of anyone contracting Lyme disease from a bite they got from a tick in the state.
In Colorado, the most common ticks people will encounter are Rocky Mountain wood ticks and American dog ticks. While those types of ticks can’t pass on Lyme disease, they can transmit other diseases through a bite.
“Rocky Mountain spotted fever is something that the ticks that are present in Colorado can transmit. We haven't seen a lot of changes in the amount of cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever reported in Colorado,” Harris said.
Early symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever include rash and upset stomach. If left untreated, patients could be left with permanent damage, including amputation, hearing loss or paralysis.
For most tick-borne illnesses, antibiotics can treat infections and prevent permanent damage if caught early.
How to prevent bringing ticks home
Ticks live all over the state and not just in wooded areas or on the trail. Radatz said ticks can show up in the most unexpected of places, and you should check for them if you’ve spent time outside.
“Check in the crevices of your body,” Radatz said. These areas include inner thighs, armpits, hairline, and at your waistband or bra band.
Radatz said when he lived in Michigan, he would take his clothes off as soon as he got home from a hike and throw them into the dryer on high heat for 15 minutes.
Experts suggest using bug spray with the ingredient DEET or clothing treated with the pesticide permethrin to help repel ticks if you’re going to be outside. If you’re going to spend time in tall grass, tuck your pant legs into your socks. You can also wear light-colored clothing so it’s easier to see a tick.
Pets are also a common way for ticks to enter households. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend checking pets for ticks every day, especially after they spend time outdoors. Owners are also encouraged to give their pets monthly tick-prevention medication, or use tick collars for pets that spend a lot of time outdoors.
How to remove a tick
If you find a tick on your body, experts recommend removing the tick using tweezers. Firmly, but carefully, grab the tick as close to the skin as possible, and pull it off without twisting or crushing its body. The tick’s head may break off during the process. If a large piece of the head remains, clean the skin with rubbing alcohol and once again use tweezers to uncover the head and scrape it off.
While some methods, like using petroleum jelly or holding a lighter to the tick, have been popularized as a way to get ticks to detach themselves, experts say these methods aren’t always effective and could be slow to work.
Afterwards, you can flush it down the toilet, or send it to testing centers for research purposes. In Colorado, the state’s public health department welcomes tick submissions that will help build a better understanding of what species of tick are in the state. Some testing centers, like Fort Collins company Ticknology, test for various tick-borne illnesses.
If you’ve been bitten by a tick, it’s important to watch for symptoms. The typical early symptoms for Rocky Mountain spotted fever include a rash that looks like small, flat, pink spots. Usually the rash appears after fever, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues.
Getting bitten by a tick and developing symptoms may sound scary, but Harris stressed that serious illness is extremely rare.
“The takeaway here is enjoy your time outside. The risk is never zero,” Harris said. “Just be aware of the risks when you get back to the trailhead, do your tick checks, and that will help to mitigate a huge amount of the risk.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the type of animal ticks are: They are arachnids.
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