Ticks and tick-borne diseases

This is the season

By Irene Shonle

Ticks…they rank very high up on the list of most people’s “least favorite animal.” And, we’re in the middle of tick season right now – it can start as early as March and usually peaks sometime in May. There have been recent reports of ticks being worse than usual in some places in Gilpin County.

While there are 30 species of ticks reported in Colorado, there are only a few you’re likely to encounter around here. Common ticks include the Rocky Mountain wood tick, which lives on small rodents, deer and domestic animals; this is the one that most commonly bites humans. The American dog tick lives on small rodents, dogs and raccoons, and occasionally bites humans. We’re also seeing an uptick (if you can pardon the pun) in the winter tick; it lives on large mammals such as moose (which are becoming more common in Gilpin County). It doesn’t bit or spread diseases to humans, and rarely bites dogs.

While ticks frequently inspire revulsion, the good news is that it is not that common for them to cause disease in Colorado. There has never been a confirmed case of Lyme disease that originated in Colorado, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever, despite its name, is very uncommon in Colorado (an average of about three cases per year). Ticks can also cause relapsing fever and spread Tularemia, but both of these are also relatively rare. The most common tick-borne disease is Colorado tick fever, with about 100 cases reported per year; most cases in April, May, and June. The disease is not life-threatening and infection results in life-long immunity. Studies have shown that a tick must usually be attached for several hours to transmit enough virus to cause illness. The Rocky Mountain wood tick also typically takes 12 to 24 hours before it even attaches, so if you check for ticks frequently (both you and your dog) when outdoors and when you come in, you can usually prevent a bite. If infected, a person will become ill in four to five days. If you find an attached tick and develop flulike symptoms and fatigue, contact a physician for proper diagnosis and treatment.

There are a few effective tick repellents. By far the most common is DEET. Apply DEET directly on clothing (test a small area to make sure it doesn’t damage it). Repellents are most effective if applied to pants and other areas of the lower body likely to come into contact with ticks. Permethrin also works; apply only to clothing, not to skin. It can kill ticks rapidly. Put tick collars on dogs to prevent them from getting ticks.

Long pants, long-sleeved shirts and other clothing can help exclude ticks or keep them from attaching to the skin. Ticks are usually acquired while brushing against low vegetation, so pulling socks over the bottom of the pants leg keeps ticks out. Light-colored clothing can make it easier to find ticks that have been picked up. If you find an attached tick, remove it as quickly as possible. The recommended procedure for removal of ticks is:

  1. Grasp the tick with      tweezers, as close to the skin as possible. If tweezers are not available      and you must use your fingers, cover them with tissue or thin plastic to      avoid the possible transmission of any disease organisms that the tick may      harbor.
  2. Pull the tick slowly and      steadily, straight away from the skin. Try not to crush the tick as you      remove it.
  3. After the tick is removed,      treat the feeding site with a disinfectant. Wash your hands carefully when      done.  Keep the tick in a bag in the      freezer for diagnosis, in case you fall ill afterwards.
  1. Tick removal for visual learners:

Many other methods have been popularized to remove ticks, such as covering them with petroleum jelly or touching them with a hot match. These methods are NOT effective, and may cause the tick to regurgitate, causing possible infection or disease. People with compromised immune systems need to be particularly alert in checking for ticks and in removing them carefully, as ticks can cause localized skin infections in this population.

Irene Shonle, is the CSU Extension Director in Gilpin County, which is located at the Exhibit Barn, 230 Norton Drive, Black Hawk, CO 80422, 303-582-9106,

Colorado State University Extension provides unbiased, research-based information about, horticulture, natural resources, and 4-H youth development. Colorado State University Extension is dedicated to serving all people on an equal and nondiscriminatory basis.

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