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Tick-Tock: Hungry ticks make for sick hikers

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MISSION VALLEY — While the spring weather is a welcome reprieve from Montana’s winter, several wildlife agencies around Western Montana are issuing warnings regarding a voracious predator that spreads disease and drinks the blood of the living — ticks.

According to a press release from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, a common tick found in the Mission and Jocko Valleys is the wood tick. Wood ticks are dark-colored arachnids found in wooded areas like brush and fields. 

“Ticks feed on the blood of animals and humans. Most ticks are relatively harmless, though several types are carriers of diseases like lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever,” the press release read.

Elton Mosher, a surveillance epidemiologist at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the most common tick in Western Montana is the common dog tick. 

“That is the one that is most associated with the illnesses that occur here,” Mosher said. 

These illnesses include Colorado tick fever and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. In fact, the reason the Rocky Mountain Lab is located in Hamilton is because of a Rocky Mountain spotted fever outbreak at the turn of the last century. 

“It was noticed that a lot of people were coming down with what they called ‘black measles,’” Mosher said. The condition is characterized by black spots all over an afflicted individual’s body, much like measles. 

“It turned out that it was a tick with a rickettsial disease causing the illness. The state health department, in association with health services at the federal level, created the Rocky Mountain Lab to identify the tick and illness itself,” Mosher said. 

Another disease, tick-borne relapsing fever, was discovered on Wild Horse Island several years ago. Lake and Ravalli Counties are the only known locations in all of Montana with the tick that transmits the disease. 

The most common tick-borne illness, lyme disease, is not present in Montana. However, there is another illness thriving in Western Montana with all the symptoms and characteristics of lyme disease. 

“We call it, ‘The Mysterious Montana Tick-Borne Disease,” Mosher said. 

Several years ago, the Department of Health conducted a study where they asked people to collect ticks and submit them to his office. These ticks were sent to a wide variety of laboratories across the country and tested for all known tick-borne disease. 

“At the time, we weren’t able to identify (the mysterious Montana tick-borne disease), Mosher said. “So we don’t know if it’s bacteria or a virus or some other parasite that might be causing it. We do know it causes a bullseye rash and some symptoms are consistent with lyme disease, but it doesn’t test positive for lyme disease. We get about six to 12 cases per year.”

Thankfully, a treatment exists for all tick-borne illnesses in Montana. While the Colorado and Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be fatal without proper treatment, and there may be ongoing symptoms if medical attention is not sought right away, a full recovery is expected with a course of the antibiotic doxycycline.

Mosher said ticks in Montana become active around March, and that activity can go through August of most years. To protect yourself from ticks, Mosher recommends using a deet or permethrin-based tick repellent. Outdoorsmen should also wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts with tight collars and cuffs. The clothing should be of a lighter material to make spotting the ticks easier. 

“We also recommend people blouse their pants by tucking their pants into the tops of their boots or stockings,” Mosher said. 

According to the CSKT press release, hikers should stay on the paths and walk down the middle of trails to avoid rubbing against brush and trees where hungry ticks are often waiting.

Hikers should check themselves, their children and pets thoroughly for ticks, and remove ticks immediately as the longer a tick stays attached, the higher the chance of infection. 

“It is not uncommon for a tick to crawl off an animal and on to you,” the press release read. “Dogs and cats should wear flea and tick collars during heavy tick seasons.”

In addition, the CSKT recommends residents trim back large bushes near homes — a tick’s favorite habitat.

To remove a tick, Mosher and the CSKT recommend ignoring most of the old wives’ tales regarding open flame, hot coals, glue and duct tape. 

“The goal of tick removal is to get rid of the live insect in one piece. While the squeamish at heart may be tempted to give the little bugger a quick yank and be done with it, leaving parts of tick embedded in your flesh will most likely cause an infection,” the press release read. “With patience in mind, follow these simple steps: 1: Wash your hands; 2: Sterilize a pair of tweezers (with rubbing alcohol and a cotton swab or a lit match); 3: Grab the tick as close to your skin’s surface as possible and pull slowly. Do not jerk! You want the tick to help you by backing out as you’re pulling. If the tick does not back out on its own, stop pulling and add a few drops of rubbing alcohol, cooking oil or petroleum jelly to the surface of the skin. The added moisture will begin to drown the tick, causing him to back out. 4: Wait. Within five to 10 minutes, the tick should begin to loosen its hold. 5: Pull again. Using the tweezers again, gently pull the tick from your skin. 6: Examine the tick. Make sure you removed both the head and body of the tick. If you suspect the tick is a disease carrier, preserve the tick in a ziplock bag for examination by your physician. 7: Cleansing. Once the tick is out, wash the skin area with antibacterial sop or swab the affected area with an antiseptic. Any itching, rash or irritation can be treated with hydrocortisone or antiseptic creams.”

Put simply, “If you’re an avid outdoorsmen, buy a set of tweezers,” Mosher said. “Trying to remove a tick from a pet with a lit cigarette doesn’t work too well.”

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