Ticks, tiny as they are, carry some pretty big threats for humans. These blood-sucking parasites can infect people with a number of diseases, like tularemia, Heartland virus and Lyme disease. While these illnesses are unpleasant for anyone who catches them, for seniors, the risks can be especially dangerous.
Tick populations are expanding nationwide
Different species of ticks thrive in locations across the country. The blacklegged tick is the No. 1 carrier of Lyme disease, which is the most common vector-borne illness in the world. According to a report in the Journal of Medical Entomology, the blacklegged tick has increased its span across the U.S. by 47 percent since 1998.
“Seniors are among the most vulnerable demographic.”
After an unusually mild winter across most of the country this year, health experts have said that the tick populations for 2016 are coming out particularly strong. They’ve been able to spread farther, invading new areas and thriving in places they haven’t been seen before. As ticks continue to expand their reaches, so do the diseases that they carry, and the number of people who have been infected steadily climbs.
Ticks can be very hard to avoid when the setting is right – just walking through the woods or in any kind of grassy area makes people vulnerable to them. They’re small, so they can easily climb onto a person without being detected, biting down and latching on without the hosts even knowing they’re there.
The elderly, because they have weaker immune systems, face an especially high risk from tick bites. Lyme disease in particular, which is often not fatal in young adults, can be deadly for seniors.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is not a quick 24-illness that people catch and then recover from. Many cases of the disease can last for several weeks, sometimes even up to six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Symptoms can be harsh but slow to set in – a person could be infected with Lyme disease for a full month with nothing but a small rash at the bite location before more serious symptoms set in. Later stage Lyme can include increased rashes, partial facial paralysis, arthritis and joint pain, irregular heartbeat, brain and spinal cord swelling, nerve pain and short-term memory loss.
The chances of overcoming this illness are more likely the earlier treatment is started, which can be a significant problem for people who are asymptomatic for 30 days after the infection. When the infection is found early enough, doctors can prescribe an antibiotic that may clear it up fairly quickly. In many cases, however, patients stay on medication for weeks. Stopping antibiotics too soon with Lyme can help the bacteria adapt to the treatment and build up a resistance to it, according to Lyme Action Network. Advanced-stage Lyme disease can be very hard to cure.
Even after treatment, Lyme disease doesn’t always go away completely. As many as 15 to 30 percent of patients who survive Lyme develop a chronic disease as a result. Seniors are among the most vulnerable demographic to the severe effects of Lyme disease, and are more likely to die from it than young adults are.
Seniors should try to keep their skin covered if they’re out in tick-prone areas.
Preventing Lyme disease infections
The best way to avoid getting Lyme disease is to fight the risks for tick bites. People who live in tick-prone areas, primarily the Northeast, Midwest and Great Lakes region of the U.S., need to take precautions every time they go outside. While ticks are most common in forests or areas of tall grass, they travel easily. Seniors who go out into areas that are likely to be tick infested should wear long sleeves and pants whenever possible and use a bug spray. After coming back inside they should check their clothes, hair and skin for the parasites.
Pet owners need to be especially careful, because dogs and cats can carry ticks inside the home. Domestic animals should be treated with a tick repellent and checked when they come indoors as well.
Yards should be kept neatly landscaped and free of plant debris. While pesticides can be a powerful tool against ticks, it’s important to only use products that are still safe for humans and pets.
Seniors need to be aware of other pests around their homes as well. Mice and other small animals are common hosts for ticks and can transport them to unlikely locations.
If seniors find ticks on themselves they should immediately check for bites. Even if they aren’t sure they’ve been bitten, if they think they might have been they should immediately seek medical attention. Lyme disease can be mistaken for other neurological diseases in its early stages so it’s important for patients to be aware of their risks of infection so doctors know to test for it.