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Don't let ticks put the bite on you this summer

May 21, 2013

Despite the name, you probably won't catch Rocky Mountain spotted fever in Colorado.

Lyme disease is also unheard of here. Colorado has far fewer ticks than other parts of the country, thanks to our dry climate and elevation.

But that's no reason to let your guard down about ticks when camping or hiking this summer. Health officials say they are here and they want to suck your blood, and they can make you sick in the process.

"You can get tick-borne diseases in Colorado. We just don't have as heavy a load and we don't have as many diseases as other parts of the U.S.," said Elisabeth Lawaczeck who oversees the insect-borne disease program at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

With large round bodies and small appendages, ticks can sense carbon dioxide exhalations from mammals, often waiting on top of vegetation to hop on a passer-by in brushy areas along the edges of fields or woodlands or on paths through grassy areas or shrub lands, according to the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.

Most human bites involve the Rocky Mountain wood tick or American dog tick, which dig into the skin and gorge themselves on blood until removed. And the mouth is barbed, so if removed incorrectly the head can stay in the skin and cause infection.

The good news is they take several hours to settle before they bite and begin feeding, so a "tick check" after a hike might identify a hitchhiker before it bites. Wearing closed-toe boots, pants tucked into socks and light-colored clothes to spot ticks more easily are also good ideas.

More good news: DEET, the active ingredient in many insect repellents, likely will keep ticks off you if applied to legs and pants. Don't wait until the traditional "bug season" of June and July to apply it, because ticks are out there now, in late spring and early summer.

Said Lawaczeck, "I definitely would put insect repellent on. Even though it's lower risk than back east, you still do not want to have a tick attack."

Here are some reasons why you don't want a tick attack.

Colorado tick fever

The bad news: The most common tick-borne disease in Colorado is a viral illness that comes from ticks biting rodents, with fever, headache, body aches, nausea, abdominal pain and lethargy, usually lasting four to five days, with an apparent recovery followed by a relapse of a few more days. It could be two to three weeks before you recover. The only cure is to let the disease run its course.

The good news: The tick has to be attached for several hours to transmit the virus, so early detection might prevent the illness. People who do get sick usually have a life-long immunity after recovering.

No agency tracks incidents of Colorado tick fever, so no statistics are available, though some estimates say 15 percent of campers or hikers in Colorado have been exposed.

Tick-borne relapsing fever

The bad news: People staying in rustic mountain lodging in Colorado are at risk for this bacterial infection, marked with recurring episodes of fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and nausea. It is spread by so-called "soft ticks," which live not in grasses but in rodent burrows. While other ticks stay on a host until removed, these ticks latch on for an hour or two while people sleep and then retreat into the walls. Many victims might not even know they were bitten. A serious disease, Lawaczeck said 80 percent of sufferers require hospitalization.

The good news: It's relatively rare, with seven cases last year - two in Saguache and Chaffee counties and one each in Fremont, Larimer and Ouray counties.

Tick paralysis

The bad news: When a Rocky Mountain wood tick remains embedded for a long time, the limb can become paralyzed, with numbness that can lead to difficulty breathing

The good news: The condition is reversible when the tick is removed.

Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever

The good news: Lawaczeck said neither of these well-known tick-borne disease are endemic to Colorado, and the Centers for Disease Control reports no cases of either here.

Lyme disease is found in the upper Midwest and East Coast, and to a lesser extend in California, while Rocky Mountain spotted fever is found in the lower Midwest, the South and mid-Atlantic regions, as well as Arizona.

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