The truth about ticks

June 8, 2018


A mother sprays tick repellent on her son's legs while hiking in a forest.

They’re tiny, clingy and hanging out on grass and shrubs near you.

Tick season is here. And even though ticks are small, they can pack a dangerous punch.

“Ticks can carry multiple different infection-causing agents: bacterial, viral, parasites,” said Dr. Phaedra Fegley, a family medicine physician in Steamboat Springs and a staff member of UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “Within minutes of biting you, they’ve released their saliva and whatever it’s carrying.”

Thinking about ticks may make your skin crawl, but read on: below, Fegley outlines what to know when it comes to ticks and your health.

Colorado ticks

There are about 30 different species of ticks in Colorado, the most common of which are the Rocky Mountain wood tick and the American dog tick. Tick activity peaks in spring and early summer, but ticks can be active throughout the year. Altitude isn’t a safeguard: ticks can live up to about 10,000 feet.

Tick-borne illnesses

In Colorado, the most common tick-borne illnesses are Colorado tick fever and tick-borne relapsing fever. Despite its name, Rocky Mountain spotted fever is rare.

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports only 13 cases of Lyme disease in Colorado since 1990 with none of the exposures having originated in Colorado, the CDC also states that there are limitations of surveillance data and problems with under reporting for the disease. However, physicians across Colorado say they have treated many patients with Lyme disease.

“Symptoms may be subtle and feel like the flu. You may have body aches, fever and chills. Your joints feel terrible. But then it’s gone,” Fegley said. “And people’s immune systems can vary. One person may be very sick, while another may feel like they just have an illness for a couple of days.”

Steps for prevention

Ticks live along forest edges, preferring to stay at the tops of plants or the tips of grasses so they can easily latch onto whoever or whatever passes near. They can sense body heat, carbon dioxide, body odor and vibrations. And they can jump.

Wear tall socks or tuck your pants into your socks, and choose lighter clothing so dark ticks stand out.

Choose clothes treated with permethrin or DEET to repel ticks, and apply appropriate repellents to the skin, including essential oils such as oil of lemon eucalyptus.

Since no repellent is foolproof, check for ticks after being outside.

“As soon as you’re home, throw your clothes in the dryer on high heat for 20 minutes to dislodge or kill any ticks,” Fegley said. “Shower and do a tick check, starting with your scalp and working your way down to check all the crevices of the body.”

Pick up leaf litter and mow your lawn regularly. And take steps to keep ticks off of pets, which can carry ticks indoors.

Removing ticks

If you find a tick on your body, remove it immediately. Use tweezers or your fingernails to grasp the tick as close to your body as possible, then quickly pull straight up.

Be careful not to squeeze the body or crush the head, as you can squirt more of its salvia into your body,” Fegley said.

When to see a doctor

Since ticks are small, they can be missed. “But if someone says, ‘I’ve been out hiking in the woods and three to 10 days later, I came down with this horrible illness,’ it’s worth seeing your medical provider and getting tested,” Fegley said.

If you find a tick on your body, Fegley recommends saving it and sending it to one of several companies that analyzes ticks to see what diseases it might be carrying.

But don’t let ticks keep you indoors all summer. “Take steps to prevent bites and check yourself after being outside,” Fegley said. “Ticks shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the outdoors.”

To learn more about ticks and tick prevention, Fegley recommends the following resources: for facts on ticks in Colorado, for a guide to safe tick repellents, and for information on testing ticks for diseases.


This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on May 28, 2018.

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at