Determine risk: Spring and early summer are high-risk for ticks because ticks are in an earlier stage of their development, called “nymphs.” Nymphs often carry heavier loads of disease-causing pathogens, and are smaller and harder to spot. Tall grass and brush are higher-risk, too, because ticks can easily climb on to hikers.
Wear long and wear light! Wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants of a light color. Lighter colors seem to attract fewer ticks and make the ones that do end up on you easier to spot. Lightweight nylon or polyester garments are almost as cool as shorts and protect from the sun as a bonus!
Seal the cracks. Tuck your shirt into your pants and tuck your pants into your socks. Gaiters can add an additional level of protection and keep small rocks and dirt out of your shoes too.
Repel invaders! Consider treating your clothing with a persistent repellent chemical called permethrin. This substance, applied to clothing, repels ticks and biting insects for up to 2 weeks. Some clothing comes already coated with this deterrent. Apply an additional repellent to all exposed skin.
Wash your hiking clothes. As soon as you get off the trail, wash your hiking clothes and dry them in a hot dryer for an hour. The heat will kill any ticks.
Tick check. Showering within two hours of leaving the trail will help wash off any ticks which haven’t latched on. Using a hand-held or full length mirror, take this time to check yourself for ticks, especially checking armpits, hair, ears and behind the ears, belly button, behind the knees, and groin. Be sure to also thoroughly check your children and pets.
Remove any ticks. If you do happen to find a tick on yourself, do not use the old trick of poking the tick with a hot match head until it comes out. Do use tweezers and grab the tick as close to the skin as possible and slowly pull it out. If you can’t grab the head in the first go, make sure to pull it out before washing the bite with a disinfectant. View the CDC’s easy-to-follow tick removal instructions and pictures.
Stay vigilant. If you develop a fever, rash, muscle and/or joint aches, flu-like symptoms or become ill, be sure to mention to your doctor possible tick exposure. Lyme disease is very serious and can cause permanent damage in bones and the nervous system. Tick bites that develop a bulls-eye ring are infected and should be treated immediately.
This week I found the first tick of the season crawling up my pants. In my experience, ticks are more prevalent in the wet period of winter and spring than they are in summer. Therefore, you will need to be vigilant for ticks for the next several months at least.
And being vigilant can be hard, as they can be quite small (see picture). When you’re inspecting yourself, look for any small dark dot. It’s good to look over yourself and your companions once you’ve left the trail. Even better, take a shower after your hike, so you can do a thorough body check. Try not to brush against trail vegetation, as they like to sit on the ends of grasses to get on you as you brush by.
Finally, if you do get bitten, extract the tick carefully with tweezers, put it in a small ziploc bag with a moistened cotton ball and send it in to have it tested for Lyme disease. I did this twice last year and thankfully neither tick had the disease. However, I tend to have a serious reaction to the tick bite if it has been in me for longer than an hour or so, which includes pain, itching, swelling, and a temporary scar at the bite site (which can last for months).
So by far, the best strategy is to prevent yourself from getting bitten in the first place. Stay safe out there!
Yesterday, after pulling invasive weeds on the Overlook Trail, I found a tick lodged in the inside of my arm. So today, as soon as I got home from my session of weed pulling, I stripped and inspected myself before heading to the shower. I was shocked to find that another was attached to my side. It had apparently bit me before I even had a chance to find it. I was out for about an hour-and-a-half. Luckily, I hadn’t yet mailed my envelope to the Sonoma County Department of Health Services to test the first tick for Lyme disease, so I added it to the envelope and doubled the check (they charge $33 to test a tick).
Part of the problem is that these buggers are quite small (see the picture of my first tick). That means when scanning for a tick on your clothing or body, you need to look for a very small, essentially black dot. Also, my work takes me off the trail into the vegetation, which most hikers and runners have no need to do (so my story isn’t necessarily indicative of the actual danger).
In a weird confluence of events, I found the first tick while in the quarterly meeting of the Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards. I discovered that my arm was sore, and I couldn’t figure out why that would be, so I looked at it, and found the tick. Thankfully I never go anywhere without my Swiss Army knife, so I ducked out of the meeting and extracted it with the tweezers. I wrapped it in a tissue for safe keeping.
To prevent your own up-close-and-personal encounters with ticks (which is really the purpose of this post), I suggest doing the following:
Avoid touching or brushing against vegetation.
Inspect yourself and others for small black dots.
Tuck pants legs into your socks.
Shower after your hike.
I made a couple signs to this effect to put at the entrances to the Overlook, and will make another two for posting on the Montini. In my ignorance, I hadn’t realized that ticks would be out by now. Richard Dale, of the Sonoma Ecology Center, told me at the Stewards meeting that they have been out for a couple of weeks. In the future, I hope to be better about warning people of the danger as soon as it becomes real. Even I could have used the warning. Stay safe out there, hikers and runners!
Yesterday I pulled a tiny tick off me (see photo), sadly not before it had bitten. Now I have a sore and swollen red spot on my back, and I’m on the lookout for any signs of Lyme disease. That is a serious disease that needs to be caught early to have any chance of avoiding potentially serious consequences.
A study in the 1990s found that the Western Fence lizard, which is plentiful on both the Overlook and Montini properties, has an enzyme that can essentially cure a tick of transmitting Lyme disease. However, a study in 2008 found that after removing the Western Fence lizard population from a plot of land, the number of ticks went down as well, as most of the young ticks could not find another host. So although the later study did not negate the findings of the earlier one, it does point out the complexity of the interactions of various populations and these effects on the spread of disease.
All of that is perhaps just a long-winded way of saying — be careful! Check yourself and others after hiking on the trails. Believe me, you don’t want to be me.
In Northern California, despite the current cold snap, we have essentially entered Spring. This means several things. Plants like poison oak are flourishing, sending tendrils out to conquer new areas. We are presently trying to cut this back from the trail.
Soon we will also need to watch out for ticks, which are particularly bad early in the season, from March to mid-May. Ticks can carry Lyme disease, so it’s important to prevent the little buggers from biting you. Wear long pants and inspect yourself after your hike. If you do get bitten, then watch the bite carefully for signs of Lyme disease, as early treatment by a medical professional is essential. Thankfully, we have the Western Fence Lizard to help us out, since when a tick bites that lizard an enzyme is transferred to the tick that cures the Lyme disease. This has led to a much lower incidence of Lyme disease than in other areas without this helpful lizard. So be kind to the Western Fence Lizard! They are already scurrying across our trails.
Another hazard to watch out for is rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes emerge from hibernation in the Spring when the days become warm enough for cold-blooded reptiles. I’ve already seen the Western Fence Lizard scurrying across the trail, which means snakes will not be far behind. However, this recent cold snap has sent them to ground. But rattlesnakes are typically around from March to September, so we are entering the time when they will be coming out of hibernation in the lowlands and making their way to their higher hunting grounds. Since they will be on the move, most of my sightings of rattlesnakes tend to happen in the Spring.