The truth about ticks in Colorado

June 3, 2022

 

Knowing there are ticks in Colorado, this mother sprays her son's legs while hiking in the forest.
Spring and early summer are prime time for ticks in Colorado. Prevention is key when enjoying the outdoors where Colorado ticks may be abundant. Photo: Getty Images.

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

Tick season in Colorado 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 so you can stay safe. Fegley outlines what to you need to know when it comes to ticks and your health.

Key facts about ticks in Colorado

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 at elevations 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 in Colorado.

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports only 9 cases of Lyme disease in Colorado in 2019 (the most recent year for which data are available) with none of the exposures having originated in Colorado, health experts note that there are limitations of surveillance data and problems with underreporting of lyme disease. So, it’s wise to be cautious about all tick-borne illnesses.

“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 preventing tick bites and tick-borne diseases

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.

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.

Tick removal

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 it away from your body.

“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 about a tick

Since ticks are small, it’s easy to miss them.

“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.

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.”

For more information about ticks and preventing tick bites, Fegley recommends learning more about Colorado Tick Fever. While bug repellants don’t always work against ticks, you can read the Environmental Working Group’s recommendations about safe repellents.

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 susancunninghambooks.com.

ADVERTISEMENT