Here are some tips for avoiding infection.
Different ticks spread different diseases. Here is what you need to know about ticks in Colorado.
For two years, Michelle Case had no name for the disease that plagued her.
Seemingly overnight, the Loveland resident, wife and mother of four became a new person. Heart palpitations and muscle tremors sent her to the emergency room night after night. Chronic fatigue kept her glued to the couch. Memory loss and blurred vision made it impossible to carry out the responsibilities of her bookkeeping job.
It took about two dozen doctors, rounds and rounds of medical tests and a bottles of unneeded medication before she learned in September 2016 that she had post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, otherwise known as chronic Lyme disease. Case’s symptoms come and go, and she worries she’ll never feel like herself again.
“Am I just going to keep coming in and out of remission for the rest of my life? I don’t know,” she said. “Every day is a struggle.”
Lyme disease is rare in Colorado — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report no confirmed cases that originated in the state — but it’s just one of a host of tick-borne diseases to watch out for this summer as temperatures rise and Coloradans itch to spend more time outside.
Blood-feeding ticks are especially common in Colorado’s higher elevations. The good news: A bite from a tick in Colorado might make you want to take 10 showers, but it probably won’t make you sick.
Still, one of Colorado’s most common tick species, the Rocky Mountain wood tick, can cause Colorado tick fever — the state’s most common tick-borne disease — or, rarely, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tick paralysis and tularemia.
Here are answers to common questions about ticks and tick-borne diseases.
How do I know if I’ve got a tick-borne disease?
It depends. Colorado tick fever feels like the flu, with aches, fever, chills and fatigue. It usually lasts about one to three days, so you might not even know you got it. About 200 cases are reported each year, but health officials believe the true count is higher.
Relapsing fever — rare but not unheard of in the Estes Park area — involves a quickly developing fever that quells after a few days but can snap back in multiple cycles, according to the Colorado State University Extension Office. Larimer County Health Department spokeswoman Katie O’Donnell said relapsing fever is a “cabin-type” disease, meaning you’re more likely to get it during a stay at a rodent-friendly cabin.
Larimer County saw one case of relapsing fever in 2016, O’Donnell said.
Other diseases to be aware of:
- Lyme disease causes a distinctive ring-shaped rash around the bite and can cause aches, flu-like symptoms and more serious issues like what Case has experienced. Chronic Lyme disease is rare. Black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks and the main culprit of Lyme disease, aren’t known to hang around Colorado. They’re more common in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York.
- Tick paralysis, a rare illness spread by the Rocky Mountain wood tick. This one is scary — infected people become increasingly paralyzed over time — but it’s reversible once the tick is removed.
- Tularemia, which you probably associate more with rabbits, can rarely infect humans. Symptoms include a sudden fever, weakness and swollen lymph nodes. Rocky Mountain wood ticks and American dog ticks can spread tularemia, but the most common source of human infection is contact with the blood of an infected animal.
I spotted a tick on my dog. What kind of tick is it, and what should I do?
It’s probably an American dog tick or a brown dog tick. They’re pretty hard to tell apart, but brown dog ticks are much more likely to cause a nasty home infestation because they prefer the indoors.
Put a little rubbing alcohol on the bite and pluck the tick out with tweezers. Be sure to remove the biting head and the entire body and then take your pet to the vet.
If you’re unlucky enough to end up with a brown dog tick infestation in your home, you’ll have to get pretty aggressive to oust the suckers. That includes treating and washing any of your dog’s favorite spots, vacuuming cracks along baseboards and throwing the vacuum bag far, far away.
Before you head into the great outdoors, make like a Girl/Boy Scout and protect your dog with a tick-prevention treatment.
What’s the best way to remove a tick?
Not with a match. Just like you would with your dog, grab a pair of tweezers and slowly pull out the tick at a right angle from your skin. You want to get the tweezers as close to your skin as possible and remove the entire tick. If you have to use your fingers, at least put a tissue or other barrier between your hand and the tick.
Disinfect the area and wash your hands afterward. Go to the doctor if you start to develop symptoms in the weeks following the bite.
How do I keep a tick from biting me in the first place?
Avoid brush-filled, grassy areas on the outskirts of fields and woods. Cover up, especially your ankles, feet and legs. Use insect repellants that ward off ticks and mosquitoes. And perhaps most importantly, check yourself and your pets for ticks after you’ve been outdoors. Ticks can take up to 24 hours or more to camp out in a feeding spot, so you’ve got a little time.
Is chronic Lyme disease a real thing?
Yes, it’s recognized by the CDC. Basically, if Lyme disease goes untreated, it can sometimes spread in the body and cause nervous system issues like Case’s.
Case still doesn’t know how she got the disease. The fair-skinned redhead is used to rashes, so she said she probably wouldn’t have noticed the distinctive rash that comes from a Lyme-infected tick bite.
Dealing with chronic Lyme disease is tough because the condition has no universal cure and is often uncovered by health insurance. Doctors often don’t test patients for Lyme disease unless the patient specifically requests it, Case said.
But Case is hopeful: Her 5-year-old son, born with Lyme disease, appears to no longer have the illness. A GoFundMe page for her family has resulted in some financial support. And next month, Case is traveling to California for experimental stem cell treatment that she hopes will result in a cure.
Her advice to others:
“If you feel something’s wrong, don’t just sit back. Keep searching.”
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