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Tick Talk: Expert advice for avoiding ticks in Utah

By Kate Richardson, Utah State University Extension arthropod diagnostician - | Jul 19, 2023

Ticks are tiny arachnids that pose a potential threat to humans and animals because they can transmit diseases This photograph depicts a dorsal view of a female Rocky Mountain wood tick, Dermacentor andersoni. This tick specie is a know North American vector of Rickettsia rickettsii, which is the etiologic agent of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Dermacentor andersoni is found in the Rocky Mountain states and in southwestern Canada. The life cycle of this tick may require up to 2 to 3 years for completion. Adult wood ticks feed primarily on large mammals, while the larvae and nymphs feed on small rodents. See PHIL 10869, for a side-by-side comparative view of both a male and female D. andersoni tick. Rocky Mountain spotted fever, like all rickettsial infections, is classified as a zoonosis. Zoonoses are diseases of animals that can be transmitted to humans. Many zoonotic diseases require a biological vector (e.g., a mosquito, tick, flea, or mite) in order to be transmitted from the animal host to the human host. In the case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ticks are the natural hosts, serving as both reservoirs and vectors of R. rickettsii. Ticks transmit the organism to vertebrates primarily by their bite. Less commonly, infections may occur following exposure to crushed tick tissues, fluids, or tick feces.

Ticks, tiny arachnids capable of transmitting diseases, pose a potential threat to humans and animals. In Utah, the primary concern is the Rocky Mountain wood tick, known for transmitting Colorado tick fever. While the likelihood of encountering the Western blacklegged tick, capable of transmitting Lyme disease, is low in Utah, precautions are still important. Ticks transmit pathogens like bacteria, viruses, or protozoa when they feed on humans.

Ticks are commonly found in Utah from snowmelt through mid-July, with activity resuming in the fall. Typically, ticks inhabit grass, low plants, and brush along the edges of fields and woodlands, within three feet of ground level. Contrary to popular belief, ticks do not jump or fly. Instead, they climb vegetation and wait for a host to pass by.

To protect against tick-borne illnesses, thorough self-checks are crucial after being in tick habitats. Pay close attention to areas like the armpits, waistline, belly button, scalp, and crotch. Promptly detecting and removing ticks is essential, as it may take a few hours for them to find a feeding site.

Proper tick removal is vital to reduce the risk of disease transmission. For larger hard ticks, use tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible, focusing on the mouthparts. Pull the tick straight upward without twisting or crushing it, applying steady pressure until it releases. Smaller hard ticks can be scraped off with a knife blade or credit card edge. If the tick’s head breaks off and remains in the skin, use a sterile needle to lift or scrape it carefully. After removing the tick, wash the wound with soap and water. Applying an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment can help reduce the chance of infection or disease transmission.

Preserve the tick in rubbing alcohol after removal for identification purposes if symptoms develop. Seek medical attention if you experience any symptoms of tick-borne diseases, such as fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, swollen lymph nodes, or a target-shaped rash at the tick site. For more information, visit the Centers for Disease Control web page on Diseases Transmitted by Ticks.

Prevention is the best strategy to avoid ticks and the potential pathogens they carry. Consider the following tips:

  • Avoid grassy, bushy, and sage-brush areas along woodland and field edges, particularly from March to mid-July.
  • Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, tucking shirts into pants and pants into socks. Apply tick repellent to clothing before entering tick habitats.
  • Opt for light-colored clothing to facilitate tick detection and removal. Always conduct a thorough tick check after being in tick-infested areas.

If you discover a tick bite, contact the Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab at Utah State University. The lab can provide identification through emailed or phoned-in photos. Physical tick samples cannot be accepted due to safety protocols.


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