So I went on a gorgeous hike last weekend. It was perfect conditions. Blue bird sky, sunshine all day, the smell of fresh spring flowers floating in the air. The hike itself was amazing. I was surrounded by fellow happy hikers and the summit view was perfect. I could see for miles. There was even a perfect slab of cool stone waiting for me to nap on when I reached the top of the mountain. Then I got back down to the trailhead and I drove 45 minutes until I reached my home. I was happy as a clam, full of both vitamin D and great memories from the hike. With an upbeat attitude I jumped in the shower, ready to wash away the dirt and grime from the trail.
And that’s when I spotted it.
A new little friend that had apparently decided to hitch a ride from the mountain back to my home. It had clearly only recently imbedded itself into my leg because it was still normal size and hadn’t yet become blood engorged. There it was, sitting there as if it wasn’t an uninvited guest. The dreaded tick. Most hikers know that acquiring a tick bite is one of the many risks nature can throw at you while out in the woods. In fact, this year especially it has been a growing problem. The thing about ticks is that they’re not only difficult to find on the body once they’ve latched on but they’re also known the spread diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Powassan virus and Tularemia.
This blog will cover how to prevent tick bites, how to deal with a tick bite once acquired, how to differentiate between tick types and which diseases they may carry.
The best way to avoid having to deal with a tick bite is covering yourself up. Before going on your hike, make sure you are wearing a long sleeved shirt and pants. If at all possible, try to keep your neck covered as well and always tuck your pants into your hiking boots. It may look silly but whoever said going for a hike meant putting on a fashion show while you’re at it. The next thing to do before heading out on your hike is to spray DEET on your shoes, socks and pant cuffs (or any access point for a tick to get into your clothing). While DEET is not 100% effective, it will certainly deter the ticks and that’s better than nothing. An equivalent to DEET is a recipe that entails the following and is considered both safe for humans and dogs:
20 drops lemongrass essential oil
20 drops eucalyptus essential pol
4 oz of water
Once you've taken all necessary precautions to avoid tick bites it's time to keep in mind which places to try to avoid in order to decrease a tick encounter. While ticks can be found pretty much anywhere in the woods, they are most often found hanging out in underbrush as well as tips of trail grasses and weeds. Ticks prey on warm-blooded mammals so they tend to hang out in areas where warm-blooded mammals frequent. So when you stop to take a break for lunch, try to make sure you’re not stopping right under a low branch tree where a tick can easily drop down on to you.
Let’s say you take all of the necessary precautions and you’ve had a wonderful long day on the trail. You get back to your house and are ready to settle down for a nice cold beer. But not so fast! (I’m looking at you Bill*…). Before you take the time to relax, it’s time to check yourself for ticks (or have a partner check you for ticks if you’re a fan of Brad Paisley songs). Make sure to go into a bathroom so you can see all of yourself in the mirror. Strip down and check your entire body over, making sure to pay special attention to your hair, armpits and nether regions as ticks like to hang out in warm areas. If you don’t find anything, still take caution and make sure to chuck your hiking clothes into the dryer to get rid of any sneaky ticks that may still be in hiding.
Now let’s talk about what to do if you do find a tick…
It doesn’t matter where you find a tick or in what condition you find it (aka, whether it’s already engorged with your blood or normal size and thus just getting started). As long as it is biting you, you deal with it the same way (if it has not yet bitten you, just make sure to take it off as quickly as possible before it gets the chance). Make sure you grab some very sharp tweezers or a special tick removing device and place the end of the tweezer right around the head of the tick. Move slowly and carefully so as not to startle the tick (avoiding the urge to rip it out, flip over a table and run around with your arms flailing wildly). You don’t want it to panic and leave behind any sort of secretion. Pull the tick away from your skin in a quick motion, making sure to take the entire head with it. If the head remains stuck in your skin, go to a doctor to have it removed so that you can avoid the risk of infection. Once you have removed the tick, make sure to place it in a sealed container and then put that container in a ziploc bag. In order to ensure the tick doesn’t dry up, make sure to keep a dampened cotton swap/paper towel inside the container with the tick.
Now that you are tick free and the tick itself is safely locked inside a tight sealed container (you do NOT need to poke holes in the container for the tick), it’s time to decide what kind of tick you have on your hands. First off, ticks are small spider-like animals (arachnids) that bite to fasten themselves onto the skin and feed on blood. While most ticks don't cause serious health problems, it's important to remove a tick immediately to avoid potential infection or diseases. There are many different kinds of ticks that frequent the rocky mountain area.
Below is a chart that shows the different kinds of ticks you are most likely to stumble upon while out for a hike as well as the numerous diseases each one possibly carries.
Once you've figured out what tick you have on your hands, it's time to submit the tick for testing. Alberta Health asks you to submit any tick you find as part of a tick surveillance program. The tick will be checked to see if they are blacklegged ticks, as these ticks are the ones that most often carry Lyme disease. You can submit the tick at any Alberta Health Services Environmental Office. For more information, visit health.alberta.ca.
If you are concerned about a tick bite that you have received, make sure you go and see a physician to have it checked out right away. Most diseases found in ticks don't take effect until a few days later and the faster you get treatment, the less likely it is that you will suffer from long term effects.
*I don’t actually know anyone named Bill. But if someone named Bill is reading this, they’ll think twice about not checking themselves for ticks when they finish they’re hike. So I just saved Bill’s life. You’re welcome, Bill.
The above information was assisted by the websites below: