Friday, June 13, 2008

Just finished a hike? Time for a tick check!

Just a reminder that when you are spending time outdoors in natural areas, you should periodically check yourself for ticks. Ticks are small parasitic arachnids that live on the blood of their hosts, which include mammals and birds. More importantly, ticks can carry a number of diseases, including Lyme disease. All ticks have three different life stages (larval, nymph, and adult), though only the nymph and adult stages are of concern for transmitting diseases. The adult stage is the most common that people hiking on trails in the Puente Hills may be exposed to. Adults find their hosts by hanging onto the tips of shrubs, grasses, etc. while waiting for an unsuspecting animal (such as yourself) to come along. Ticks don’t jump or fly, they simply grab on as you pass by. The smaller nymphs (about the size of a poppy seed) live within leaf litter on the ground. Because of their smaller size, the nymphs are the most difficult to detect, though a person would be far less likely to pick one up if only hiking a trail.

There are many different kinds of ticks in California, with two of the more common ticks being the black-legged tick and Pacific Coast tick. In California, the black-legged tick is the only one known to transmit Lyme disease, although ticks in general can carry other diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Found elsewhere in the United States, the other carrier of Lyme disease is the deer tick. Most sources report that on average, 1 to 2 percent of adult black-legged ticks are infected with Lyme disease, as opposed to 2 to 15% of nymph ticks, though the percentage can be much greater in higher risk areas such as northwestern California and the northeastern United States. In addition, with infected ticks the risk of transmission increases the longer that the tick is attached. Therefore, it is important to regularly check yourself for ticks while outdoors in areas where ticks can be found, and also give yourself a very thorough check when you return home.

Don’t let the potential for ticks keep you from getting outdoors. There are many things that you can do to reduce your risk of getting bitten by a tick.

  • Dress appropriately. Wear light-colored clothing so that you can spot ticks easily. Wear full-length long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and hats to keep ticks off of your skin and out of your hair.

  • When hiking a trail keep to the middle of the trail and avoid brushing against vegetation (although this is often difficult depending on the trail).

  • Periodically check yourself on the trail for ticks, or better yet have a buddy help you. Ticks may be hiding in the seams of clothing. When are finished with your outdoor activities, give yourself a very thorough tick check, and then once again when you get home. Be sure to check your pets for ticks if you take them outdoors with you.

  • As an added precaution, repellents are available that can be sprayed on your clothing.

If you find a tick attached to you, remove the tick immediately with a pair of tweezers. Research suggests that it takes from hours to one or two days for ticks to begin transmitting disease-causing bacteria. Do not use chemicals, heat or anything else that might irritate the tick and cause it to regurgitate disease-causing agents into your skin. Grasp the tick’s head/mouthparts with a pair of tweezers as close to your skin as possible. Be careful not to squash the tick, as this may force fluids from the tick into your skin. Using the tweezers, slowly and steadily pull the tick straight out. It is important not to leave any mouthparts in your skin, as this could cause a secondary infection. If you are unsure which species of tick that bit you, keep the tick in a plastic bag or vial of alcohol for later identification.

After removing the tick, consult with a physician. Your doctor may prescribe a brief treatment of antibiotics out of precaution. Regardless, if you develop any flu-like symptoms within a few days to weeks of being bit, consult with your doctor. One of the common symptoms of Lyme disease is a characteristic “bulls-eye” rash that develops at the site of the bite, and then later can spread elsewhere. The technical term for this rash is erythema migrans. Other symptoms include headache, fever, fatigue, etc.

In 15 years of being a field biologist, I have literally picked hundreds of ticks off of me, and have probably had 6 or so that have attached, though I have caught them quickly. So, like anything else, the key is to be aware, educated, and responsible. Just add ticks as one more thing to your list of things to watch out for. Make a tick check a part of your regular outdoor routine!

Here is a link to a document from the California Department of Public Health website for more detailed information on ticks and Lyme disease:

No comments: