Soaring vistas, crashing waterfalls, verdant orchards, towering mountains, rushing rivers, and trickling streams: the Pacific Northwest calls to the nature lover. But all that outdoor time might bring you in contact with less than desirable pests, including ticks.
Although ticks aren’t quite the problem that they are in other areas of the country, they do make an appearance in Washington state. These parasites can carry diseases harmful to humans and pets, and they should be avoided if at all possible. Spring is a particularly prime season for these annoying creatures.
Ticks common to Washington State
Ticks are small, blood-feeding parasites common in woods and low-lying vegetation. Some types of ticks feed on animals and humans that brush past their habitat while others prey on rodents & their nests. Ticks feed by burrowing their mouth pieces into their host to find blood. This makes them particularly difficult to remove as you can’t just brush them off.
According to the Washington State Department of Health, there are four types of ticks commonly found in the state.
- Western Black-legged tick (ixodes pacificus) – As its name implies, these ticks are found on the west side of the state as well as the eastern Cascades. They prefer to live in forested or brush prone areas. An engorged female can grow to nearly a centimeter but most are much smaller, just a few millimeters in size. The male is not able to feed like the female and so it doesn’t not become engorged. A nymph can appear as small as a freckle. These ticks are brownish-black in appearance. It takes three years for this tick to complete its life cycle.
- Western Dog tick (dermacentor similis) – Common to the eastern and southwestern parts of the state, the dog tick makes its home in woodlands and the shrubs and grasses found in wetlands. They prefer the sunny, open areas around the edges of woods. Like other ticks, they are only a few millimeters in size so they can be easily overlooked. The nymphs prefer to feed on small mammals like rodents. While the adults may feed on mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Unlike other ticks, these ticks tend to stick to one host their entire life cycle.
- Rocky Mountain Wood tick (dermacentor andersoni) – This reddish tick is found in the northwestern United States, but primarily in eastern Washington state. They live in woodlands and grassy shrubs. They look very similar to the dog tick above. Adults will feed on large mammals as they go through their 1-3 year life cycle.
- Soft tick – All of the above are considered hard ticks (because of their hard protective shell). But also of concern for Washingtonians, who love to camp in the mountains, are soft ticks. Soft ticks are much more stealthy than their counterparts above. They lack that hard protective shell, so they feed mostly at night, remain attached for a short time, and make a painless bite that is often unnoticeable. They are mostly encountered by humans only when sleeping in mountainous areas in a rustic, rodent-infested cabin. You might not even know you’ve been bitten until/unless you develop symptoms of a disease.
Tick borne diseases common to Washington State
While Washington State has fewer reported cases of tick borne diseases than many states, they are not immune. Ticks are particularly dangerous transmitters of diseases. As they feed, ticks are engorged with blood and their bodies can swell with the amount ingested. In this process, they can transmit diseases through their saliva or blood. Ticks can feed anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Diseases from ticks reported in Washington include the following:
- Babesiosis: a microscopic parasite that infects red blood cells. Symptoms include flu-like symptoms of fever, chills, sweats, head & body aches, loss of appetite, nausea, and fatigue. Some infected individuals display no symptoms, but it can have life-threatening complications for those with weakened immune systems or health conditions of the liver or kidneys. Babesiosis is treatable.
- Lyme disease: The most common vector-borne disease in the US, it is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Symptoms include fever, headache, chills, and a skin rash. Lyme disease can spread to the joints, heart, and even nervous system if left untreated. Most cases can be treated with antibiotics if it is caught. The earlier the treatment the better. Research continues on this disease as some experience persistent symptoms.
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever: a bacterial disease that can be deadly if left untreated. Symptoms include fever, headache, and rash. Early treatment with antibiotics is recommended. The reddish purple spots denoting the rash begins in the late stages. Efforts should be made to begin treatment before the rash develops as it is a sign of the disease progressing.
- Tick-borne relapsing fever: another bacterial infection transmitted by ticks. The main symptoms are high fever, headaches, and muscle/joint ache. The infection can repeat if not treated. It can cycle with 2-7 days of illness followed by 4-14 days recovery.
- Tick paralysis: this rare disease is thought to be from toxins in tick saliva. It causes paralysis that begins a few days after the tick feeds. First you may experience muscle weakness, loss of coordination, numbness, and difficulty standing or walking. The paralysis moves upward and can result in respiratory failure and death. Usually prompt removal of the tick leads to complete recovery.
- Tularemia: The bacteria Francisella tularensis causes symptoms of lung infection, enlarged lymph glands, and throat inflammation along with flu-like symptoms (fever, aches, chills). While it can be spread by ticks, it is also an air-borne disease. Treatment included prompt intervention with antibiotics.
The best offensive is a good defensive. In order to be proactive in your fight against ticks, take the following precautions.
- Expect them. Know where you are likely to encounter ticks. Avoid grassy, brushy, or wooded areas, particularly in the spring and summer.
- Deny them. If you are in a tick prone area, wear light-colored, tightly woven clothing with full sleeves and pants. Tuck your leg into your socks or boots. This keeps ticks on the outside of your clothing where they are more likely to be seen and unattached.
- Repel them. Use a repellent when necessary. Look for an EPA-registered option with DEET. Apply to clothes, skin, and even your gear.
- Inspect for them. After being in potential habitats, take care to inspect yourself, your kids, your pets, and your gear. A few minutes of scrutiny could prevent an infection.
- Clean them off. If you can shower within two hours of outdoor exposure, you can reduce your likelihood of tick-borne illnesses. Showering well can wash off ticks that have not yet attached and it is also a good time to do a full-body inspection – note hairline, neck, ears, under arms, belly button, between the legs, and behind the knees.
For your home
- Remove piles of leaves, brush, and organic material that can attract ticks
- Create paved, brick, gravel, or decking around your house create sunny areas to discourage ticks
- Keep grass mowed and bushes trimmed.
- Widen woodland trails to create a boundary from potential tick infested areas
- Move play equipment like swings and trampolines away of wooded edges and place them on a wood chip or mulch footing.
- Discourage rodents that can transmit ticks by practicing good rodent control.