Ticks are small blood-feeding parasites that can transmit diseases to people. Some types of ticks perch on the edge of low-lying vegetation and grab onto animals, and people, as they brush past. Other ticks are associated with rodents and their nests and may only come out at night to feed. Once aboard, ticks crawl until they find a good spot to feed, then burrow their mouthparts into the skin for a blood meal. Their bodies slowly enlarge to accommodate the amount of blood ingested. Ticks feed anywhere from several minutes to several days depending on their species, life stage, and type of host.
Avoiding Tick Bites
When working, camping, or walking in a tick habitat - wooded, brushy, or grassy places - a few simple precautions can reduce your chance of being bitten.
- Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Tuck your pant legs into socks or boots and shirt into pants. This can help keep ticks on the outside of your clothing where they can be more easily spotted and removed.
- 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 attach itself.
- Use tick repellent when necessary, and carefully follow instructions on the label. Take care when using repellents on children. To find the best repellent for you, use the EPA's repellent search form.
- Check yourself, your children, and pets thoroughly for ticks. Carefully inspect areas around the head, neck, ears, under arms, between legs, and back of knees. Look for what may appear like a new freckle or speck of dirt.
- Shower or bathe (preferably within two hours after being in tick habitat) to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.
Hunters and their dogs are especially vulnerable to tick-borne diseases because of time spent in tick-infected areas. Learn how to prevent tick bites during hunting season, see CDC's precautions for hunters.
Cabins and Rodents
When staying in summer cabins or vacation homes, especially in eastern Washington, make sure rodents, and their ticks, aren't spending the night with you. Practice rodent control by not attracting rodents, sealing them out of your living areas, trapping rodents, and properly cleaning up rodent-contaminated areas.
Around the Home Management
Focus your management of tick habitat to areas frequently used by your family, not necessarily your entire property.
- Use brick, paving, decking, gravel, container plantings, and low water requirement plants to encourage bright sunny areas immediately around your home - open sunny areas are less likely to harbor ticks.
- Keep grass mowed and shrubs trimmed, and restrict the use of groundcover in family or pet areas.
- Keep dogs and cats out of the woods to keep them from bringing home ticks. Tick control products are available for pets - follow label instructions and talk to your veterinarian if you have questions.
- Widen woodland trails.
- Move swing sets, sand boxes, and other children play areas away from the edge of woods and place them on a wood chip or mulch foundation.
- Use plantings that don't attract deer or exclude deer through fencing.
- Practice rodent control to discourage rodent activity in and around your home.
Removing a Tick
- Promptly remove the tick using fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible and pull upward with steady, even pressure. Avoid removing the tick with bare hands. Don't twist or jerk the tick -- this may cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouthparts with tweezers.
- After removing the tick, disinfect the bite site and wash your hands.
- Note the date that you found the tick attached to you, just in case you become ill. If a fever, rash, or flu-like illness occurs within a month, let your doctor know that you were bitten by a tick. This information may assist your doctor in diagnosing your illness.
Avoid Folk Remedies to Remove a Tick
Hot matches or coating the tick's body with petroleum jelly, soap, or nail polish do little to encourage a tick to detach from skin. In fact, they may make matters worse by irritating the tick and causing it to release additional saliva, increasing the chance of transmitting disease. These methods of tick removal should be avoided.
Neither the Washington State Public Health Laboratories nor the CDC tests ticks for disease. We can, however, identify ticks to species. Because different tick species transmit different pathogens, knowing the tick species may help a healthcare provider diagnose an illness that could be associated with a tick bite.
- Healthcare providers and local health departments investigating a possible human tick-borne disease case should submit a tick for identification using the Microbiology Submission Form (PDF). Mark "Parasitology" and indicate the tick exposure location under the "Comments" section.
- Ticks found on you, a family member, or a pet can be submitted for identification using the Tick Identification Submission Form (PDF).
Diseases Spread by Ticks
Washington has relatively few tick-borne disease cases reported each year in comparison to some areas of the United States. If you think you have symptoms of a tick-borne disease, contact your doctor. Doctors are asked to notify local health departments of suspected or confirmed cases of tick-borne disease (see Notifiable Conditions). The following diseases can be transmitted by a tick bite in Washington.
The first sign of Lyme disease is usually an expanding circular rash which starts at the site of the tick bite. The rash may have a target shape or "bull's-eye" appearance. Fever, headache, muscle aches, and joint pain may also occur. If left untreated, later symptoms can include recurring joint pain, heart disease, and nervous system disorders. Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States, but is rare in Washington. Only zero to three Lyme disease cases per year are reported to be infected in Washington. Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which can be transmitted through the bite of a western black-legged tick, Ixodes pacificus. Western black-legged ticks pick up the bacteria after feeding on infected rodents. These ticks live in forested or brushy areas of western Washington. Learn more about Lyme disease.
Tick-borne Relapsing Fever
Symptoms include relapsing (recurrent) periods of fever lasting for two to seven days, disappearing for about four to fourteen days, and then reoccurring. One to 12 cases of tick-borne relapsing fever are reported each year in Washington. Most people become infected while staying in rural, mountainous cabins of eastern Washington during the summer months. The soft tick, Ornithodorus hermsi, typically feeds on rodents, which is where they pick up the Borrelia hermsii bacteria. The infected tick can then transmit the bacteria by feeding on a person for short periods of time while they are sleeping. Since these ticks are associated with rodent burrows and nests, it's important to keep rodents out of cabins and other sleeping areas. Learn more about tick-borne relapsing fever.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Initial symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever may include fever, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, lack of appetite, and severe headache. A rash generally, but not always, appears a few days later. Abdominal pain, joint pain, and diarrhea can also occur. Each year, zero to three cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever are identified in Washington. Some of the cases are infected in Washington, some are infected elsewhere. The bacteria that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever is transmitted by the bite of an infected American dog tick, Dermacentor variabilis, or Rocky Mountain wood tick, D. andersoni. These ticks are found throughout the state and prefer woodland areas, medium height grasses and shrubs between wetlands and woods, and sunny or open areas around woods. They are especially common in eastern Washington. Learn more about Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, CDC.
Tick paralysis is caused by a neurotoxin from an attached tick. This condition is characterized by a progressive paralysis that usually starts in the legs with muscle weakness, loss of coordination, numbness, and difficulty standing or walking. The symptoms progress upwards to the abdomen, back, and chest. If the tick is not removed, paralysis of the chest muscles can lead to respiratory failure and death within 24 to 48 hours after symptoms begin. Prompt removal of the tick usually leads to a complete recovery. Twelve cases of tick paralysis have been reported in Washington from 1990 through 2011. Ticks associated with tick paralysis include Ixodes and Dermacentor species that live in forested and brushy areas or along edges between open grassy areas and woods. See Tick Paralysis Case Report, CDC.
A tick bite is one way people can get tularemia. Symptoms of tularemia following a tick bite include sudden fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes, and a skin ulcer near the bite. One to 10 cases of tularemia are reported each year in Washington - only some of these are due to tick bites and some cases are acquired in other states. Ticks that can transmit tularemia in Washington are the American dog tick, Dermacentor variabilis, and the Rocky Mountain wood tick, D. andersoni. These ticks are found throughout the state and prefer woodland areas, medium height grasses and shrubs between wetlands and woods, and sunny or open areas along the edge of woods. Find out more at Tularemia, CDC.
Symptoms of anaplasmosis include headache, fever, chills, and muscle aches. No human cases have been reported in Washington; however, anaplasmosis has been diagnosed in numerous dogs in our state. Western black-legged ticks, Ixodes pacificus, can carry the bacteria that cause anaplasmosis and are found living in forested or brushy areas in the western part of the state. Learn more about Anaplasmosis, CDC.
Symptoms of babesiosis include fever, chills, fatigue, muscle pain, and anemia. Since 1990, only cases have been reported as contracting the disease in Washington. The western black-legged tick, Ixodes pacificus, is considered the vector of this disease in Washington. This tick is found in forested or brushy areas of western Washington. See Babesiosis, CDC.