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Tick Time in the Rockies

Ah, spring. The trees are budding, the daffodils bloom. It's time to get out in that glorious country around us. And time to watch out for ticks. Valley View Hospital is reminding residents that hungry tick are everywhere at this time of year and they're looking for human meals.

Rocky Mountain wood ticks are found throughout the Colorado mountains, and are especially abundant on sunny, south-facing slopes covered with brush or other low vegetation. They are a dark reddish brown with a white shield covering the front third of the body. Only 1/16 of an inch long, the tick may grow to 1/2 inch and turn a grayish color when engorged with blood. They emerge in March and actively seek humans and other animals for a blood meal. The highest risk of being bitten by a tick is during the months of April, May and June.

Ticks carry a variety of diseases. In this area, the most common threat from ticks is Colorado Tick Fever (CTF), with 100 cases reported each year. CTF is an acute viral illness characterized by fever, headaches, body aches, nausea, abdominal pain, and lethargy. These symptoms last four or five days, followed by an apparent recovery. Then the symptoms return for two or three more days. Complete recovery often takes two or three weeks. The disease is not life-threatening and infection results in lifelong immunity.

Colorado Tick Fever is caused by a virus carried by the wood ticks. The virus is transmitted to humans when the ticks bite us to obtain a blood meal necessary for their growth and reproduction. Studies have shown that a tick must be attached to the host for several hours in order to transmit enough of the virus to cause illness. If infected, a person will become ill in four to five days.

Less common is a serious bacterial disease known as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which can be life-threatening. The early symptoms are similar to CTF, but a rash develops on the extremities and spreads to the entire body. An average of two cases per year are reported.

If you become ill after a tick bite or exposure in tick-infected areas, see your physician. There are diagnostic tests to differentiate CTF from more serious diseases.

Preventing Tick Fever

Mountain residents are all at risk of exposure to Colorado Tick Fever. According to the Colorado Department of Health, there are three easy ways to avoid being exposed:

  • Avoid areas of high tick infestation from April to June.
  • Wear protective clothing and use insect repellents. Wear long pants tucked into boots or socks. Insect repellents containing DEET can reduce the number of ticks climbing onto a person. The insecticide permethrin can be applied to clothing only (not skin) as well.
  • Conduct regular tick checks. The most effective way to prevent exposure is to search your entire body and remove ticks. You should search every two or three hours and it helps to have friends check each other's backs. Pay special attention to the hairline on the back of the neck, especially on children.

Tick Removal

Ticks have mouthparts with fishhook barbs to piece the skin and maintain a firm grip. Ticks also secrete a cement-like substance to hold them to the skin.

To remove them:

  1. Use tweezers to grasp the tick's head as close to your skin as possible.
  2. Pull the tick straight out, using firm, steady pressure. Do not twist or yank the tick.
  3. If you do not have tweezers, it is better to wait until you can use them than to use your fingers. But if you must use your fingers, cover your fingers with tissue paper or a leaf to avoid contact with the tick juices.
  4. Do not prick, burn, or try to smother the tick. These methods may cause the tick to regurgitate into the bite wound, increasing the chance of infection.

With spring beckoning us into the countryside, a little mindful attention to tick prevention can keep us healthy to enjoy the warm weather. You can get more information on Ticks & tick bites at: MedlinePlus®Tick Bites and at Kids Health.

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