Tick season arrives in Washington

Beware blood-sucking, disease-carrying bugs when outdoors, health officials say

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter



Washington health officials have a message for hikers heading outdoors to enjoy the spring weather: Beware of ticks.

Tick season is in full swing in Western Washington, with ticks growing active as the seasons change and more people head outdoors. Health officials are urging people to protect themselves, and their dogs, against ticks, which can carry diseases harmful to humans and animals.

Submit a tick

To submit a tick to the Washington State Department of Health for identification — a surveillance program funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — print an identification form from the website. Follow instructions on the form to submit the form and tick.

For more information about ticks, visit the Washington State Department of Health website.

"Yes, we do have ticks around the state, all over the state," said Liz Dykstra, public health entomologist for the state. "We do have ticks that carry disease. … The risk is there and it's worthwhile to protect yourself against tick bites."

Those who come across ticks during springtime camping or hiking are urged to mail them to the state health department in Olympia for identification.

Different types of ticks carry different diseases. The state Department of Health is beginning the third year of a project aimed at mapping where different ticks, and the diseases they carry, are located within the state.

The state launched the surveillance and testing project, funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in fall of 2010.

In the first year, the project focused on the west side of the state. Health officials worked with veterinarians and wildlife rehabilitation groups to collect ticks and test them for disease-carrying pathogens. In the second year, officials pushed into the east side of the state.

Now in the third year, project officials are hoping to collect data from some of the more underrepresented areas, including Southwest Washington.

Dykstra is hoping to create partnerships with veterinarians and other groups in Clark, Cowlitz, Skamania, Lewis, Pacific and Wahkiakum counties. Individuals can also send samples to health officials for identification.

The state is keeping an eye on ticks that are possible or known vectors for Lyme disease and anaplasmosis. Both are tick-borne diseases caused by bacteria transmitted by the ticks.

Typical symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, fatigue, headache and a characteristic skin rash. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anaplasmosis symptoms include fever, headache, chills, and muscle aches, according to the CDC.

In 2011, the state tested 111 ticks. Two ticks in Mason County tested positive for Lyme disease, and three ticks — one each in Mason, Thurston and Chelan counties — tested positive for anaplasmosis, Dykstra said.

In 2012, two ticks tested positive for Lyme disease, one from Mason County and one from Clallam County. That year, the state tested 380 ticks, Dykstra said.

"What that tells us is that we do have those pathogens in the environment but in very low levels," said Dykstra, adding that this year's samples will be submitted for testing in late spring.

Even with the levels low, Dykstra said people should be careful when hiking around in tick country. In Western Washington, ticks are most commonly found in grassy areas bordering woody environments and along the edges of ponds, where the soil is moist.

Adult western black-legged ticks — which are vectors for Lyme disease — like the cool, wet environments and are most active during February, March and April, Dykstra said.

"We do have ticks in Western Washington. Yes, they bite. So take protection," Dykstra said.

An ounce of prevention

Source: Washington State Department of Health

When walking, hiking, camping or working in a tick habitat, health officials recommend taking precautions to reduce your chance of being bitten.

• Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Tuck your pant legs into your socks or boots, and shirt into pants, to help keep ticks outside of your clothing.

• Wear light-colored, tightly woven clothing, which will allow the dark tick to be seen more easily. The tight weave makes it harder for the tick to reach your skin and become attached.

• Use tick repellent when necessary and carefully follow the instructions. Products containing DEET or permethrin are most effective.

Health officials also have advice for people once they leave tick country.

• Check yourself, your children and pets thoroughly for ticks. Closely inspect around the head, neck, ears, under arms, between legs and back of knees. Look for what appear like a new freckle or speck of dirt. When checking dogs, run your fingers through their fur to detect any bumps that might be a tick.

• Shower or bathe, preferably within two hours, to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.

• If you discover a tick, it's important to remove it quickly. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible and pull upward with steady, even pressure. After removing the tick, disinfect the area and wash your hands.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.