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Tick Talk: A Guide to Tick Safety in Washington’s Wilderness

The allure of Washington's wilderness during the summer months is undeniable, but the presence of ticks is a reality that shouldn't be overlooked. Although Washington reports relatively few tick-borne disease cases each year compared to other parts of the United States, changing climate patterns are altering the ranges of ticks and the diseases they carry. This shift suggests that in the near future, we may witness the spread of familiar tick-borne diseases to new areas, as well as the emergence of new diseases transmitted by ticks.

Tickology 101: Know the enemy

First things first, let's talk tick types. In the lush forests and meadows of Washington state, you're likely to encounter a few different species of ticks, with the most common being the Western black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificus) and the Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni). These critters have a knack for hiding out in tall grasses, brush, and leaf litter, just waiting for a warm-blooded host (that's you, my friend) to stroll by.

Black-legged tick is also known as the deer tick. Found predominantly in wooded areas and tall grasses, the black-legged tick is notorious for transmitting Lyme disease. Yes, the same Lyme disease that can turn a fun-filled hiking trip into a not-so-fun-filled medical ordeal.

American dog tick is a common sight in Washington's grasslands and scrub habitats in the southwest region. While it doesn't carry Lyme disease, it's not exactly harmless either. This critter can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia, two infections you definitely don't want to mess with.

Rocky Mountain wood tick prefers the eastern side of the state and carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever disease.

Visit the Washington State Department of Health to check out their portraits.

How to Stay Tick-Free 

On the Trails

Dress the Part: Before you hit the trails, suit up! Wear light-colored clothing to spot ticks more easily and tuck your pants into your socks to create a tick-proof barrier. Fashionable? Maybe not. Effective? Absolutely.

Tick-Proof Your Gear: Treat your clothing and gear with permethrin, a highly effective insect repellent that can knock out ticks on contact. You can either buy pre-treated clothing or DIY it with a permethrin spray. I use Sawyer’s Permethrin Fabric Treatment to treat my shoes, backpack and clothing.

Stay on the Beaten Path: While bushwhacking may sound adventurous, sticking to well-maintained trails can significantly reduce your risk of encountering ticks. Ticks love to hang out in tall grasses and leaf litter, so give those areas a wide berth. Ticks don’t jump or fly. They crawl onto people when we brush up against them.

After the Hike

Tick-check Tango: After a day of outdoor fun, take a few minutes to do a thorough tick check. Give yourself a thorough once-over, paying special attention to warm, moist areas like the back of your knees, armpits, and scalp.  (or recruit a friend for those hard-to-reach spots). Don’t forget to check in and around the hair, head, and inside the belly button (this one is from the experience). Ticks are usually very small before they feed and look like a new freckle or speck of dirt. Continue checking for two to three days after returning from areas with ticks.

Shower Promptly: Showering within two hours of returning indoors can help wash off unattached ticks and make it easier to spot any that are attached.

Don't Forget Fido: If you're exploring with your furry friend, make sure to check them for ticks too! Pets can also fall victim to these bloodthirsty bugs, so keep an eye out for any unwanted hitchhikers in their fur.

Look for hitchhikers: Don’t forget to check all the gear, these creepy ones can hitch a ride into your home by hiding in your gear. 

Post-Hike Ritual: Ticks can survive a wash cycle but not the heat of a dryer. Dry your clothes on high heat for at least 10 minutes. This will effectively "cook" any stowaway ticks that have hitched a ride on your clothes.

There is a TICK attached to me!!

Don't panic! Stay cool and resist the urge to try any old wives' tales like hot matches or nail polish—those can actually make the tick release more saliva, upping your chances of catching something nasty. Instead, gear up with fine-tipped tweezers, soap, and water, and get ready to tackle the tiny invader in two simple steps:

With  fine-Tipped tweezers grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Avoid twisting or jerking the tick, as this can cause mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin​ (yuck!)

Next, clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. 

Watch this video about how to remove a tick, if you prefer visual learning.

In case you develop any signs of tick-borne illness such as rash, fever, or flu-like symptoms, seek medical advice promptly. 

And there you have it, a crash course in tick warfare! Go ahead, lace up those hiking boots, grab your trusty bug spray, and get ready to embark on your next great outdoor adventure. 

Stay safe, stay vigilant, and happy trails!

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