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Ticks

From Portland Hikers Field Guide

A Western Black-Legged Tick on a dog. (Jeff Statt)

The Pacific Northwest is home to lots of animals big and small. One of the least noticed and yet noteworthy are ticks.

In Oregon, ticks tend to be found east of the Cascades and in Southern Oregon. They tend to be at lower elevations. Some areas they're common at are Dog Mountain, Catherine Creek, and McCall Preserve in the gorge and along the Rogue River. Some people have been infected on the Eagle Creek Trail (not east of Cascades) so wherever you go, be careful. They are more active in May, June, and July.

Ticks are arachnids of the families ‘’Ixodidae’’ (hard-shelled ticks) and ‘’Argasidae’’ (soft-shelled ticks). They typically have a three stage life cycle, larvae, nymphs and adults. Ticks are most active in spring and early summer. In our area, they seem to be most common in open forests, such as Oregon Oak.

At each stage, the tick climbs to the top of grasses or shrubs. In a behavior known as ‘’questing’’, the tick extends its front legs and waits for a passing animal (or hiker). The tick grabs hold and immediately starts looking for a place to attach, usually traveling upward. The ticks then attach with barb-like mouth parts and begin sucking blood. After 1 to 2 days of feeding the ticks drop off, molt and move to the next life stage.

The biggest danger to a tick bite is the possibility of contracted Lyme disease. Lyme disease is caused by bacteria called ‘’Borrelia burgdorferi’’. This bacteria inhabits the digestive tracts of Western Black-Legged Ticks. Recent studies show that only 1-5% of ticks in our area carry the bacteria. When ticks bite humans, the bacteria can be transmitted to the people. It typically takes 24 hours or more before the Lyme Disease bacteria will enter the host, so prompt tick removal is very important. Unfortunately, the Western Black Legged Tick is very small. Nymphs are about the size of a poppy seed and often go unnoticed.

Lyme Disease is a bigger problem in the Northeast U.S. and Colorado where in 2006 (a year that the CDC had statistics for) there were 20 to 60 cases per 100,000 population. In Oregon, Washington, and California there were 0.2 cases per 100,000 population.

Lyme disease can be an ugly problem. Typical short-term symptoms include headache, fever, fatigue and muscle pain that can be characteristic of the flu. A key diagnosis point is a distinctive “bulls-eye” rash, where the redness assumes a ring-shaped pattern that appears a day to a month after the tick bite. Unfortunately, the rash isn’t always ring-shaped and some people get no rash at all. At this stage Lyme is easily treated with a several week regimen of antibiotics.

If left untreated, Lyme disease can spread to the heart, nervous system and joints. Long term Lyme sufferers can have a huge list of varied symptoms including meningitis, brain inflammation, muscle twitching, chronic joint pain, arthritis and even memory loss. Long term Lyme can be misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis or even type 2 diabetes.

Prevention

  • Like all diseases, it’s best to avoid Lyme in the first place. Avoiding Lyme is as simple as avoiding ticks. When possible stay out of areas with tall grass or weeds where ticks often quest. Stay on the trail and avoid brushing against grass and brush.
  • Wear long pants and a long sleeved shirt. Keep your shirt tucked in. Tuck your pants into your boots, or tape or rubber band your pants cuffs to your boots, or wear gaiters. Light colored clothing makes ticks easier to spot, so they can be brushed off before they can attach.
  • After a hike in a heavy tick area, be sure to examine your entire body (and I mean entire, folks) for ticks. Remove any ticks immediately.
  • The best way to remove a tick is by firmly grasping the tick’s mouthparts at your skin with tweezers, and pulling straight out. A "Pro-Tick" removal tool works well and doesn't cost very much. Try to avoid squishing the body as this forces more digestive juices into the host, increasing the chance of infection. Another method involves using a loop of fishing line or sewing thread. The loop can be placed around the tick’s head and when then the string is pulled to remove the tick. Ticks are difficult and somewhat painful to remove. Wash your hands and the bite site with soap and treat the bite with an antiseptic. If you experience any symptoms of Lyme disease, get medical care promptly.
  • "Folk" techniques of tick removal don't work, like touching the tick with a hot match, petroleum jelly, alcohol, etc. The contents of the tick guts may be released into the wound.
  • Use Permethrin (0.5%) on your clothes. Spray it on outer surfaces. Don't do this indoors. Let it dry 4 hours. Don't get any on your hands. This should last 6 weeks or through 6 launderings. Boots and pants are most important because they have the most contact with ticks.
  • Use DEET (30%) on exposed skin. DEET is not as effective as Permethrin. If you also apply sunscreen, do this first and let it absorb for 30 minutes before applying the DEET. Don't use a product that combines DEET and sunscreen, because the instructions for use of insect repellents and use of sunscreen are different. In most situations, insect repellent does not need to be reapplied as frequently as sunscreen.
  • Dogs are especially prone to getting ticks, because they are constantly brushing against grass and brush. Frontline or K9 Adnatix are effective. They have to be applied more often for ticks, than for fleas. They kill the ticks when they bite the dog, so it is possible for ticks to be crawling around in the hair, the dog can get in your car and house, and then the ticks get loose and infect people, so comb the dog out after the hike before getting in your car.

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Portland Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.