Protect Senior Loved Ones From Tick-Borne Illness
July is a high-risk month for a disease that is especially dangerous for older adults.
This is the time of year when we get outside more. The fresh air, exercise and natural surroundings provide a real health boost! But this also is the season when people are more likely to contract an illness from the bite of a tick. You might be familiar with Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia. More recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned of the spread of babesiosis, a tick-borne illness that can be dangerous—and even deadly—for older adults.
Babesiosis (pronounced "ba-BEE-zee-OH-sis") is a disease caused by a single-cell parasite called Babesia that infects red blood cells. The parasite enters the bloodstream when a person is bitten by a deer tick—the same kind of tick that also spreads Lyme disease.
Symptoms of babesiosis can develop within a week, or may not appear until a month later or longer. The signs include fever, chills, sweating, head and body aches, loss of appetite, fatigue, nausea and a type of anemia that can lead to jaundice and dark urine. While many infected people will have no noticeable symptoms of the infection and will recover without complications, seniors and persons with compromised immune systems may suffer a serious—even fatal—case of babesiosis. If you or a senior loved one develops these symptoms, contact your healthcare provider. Babesiosis can be diagnosed with a blood test and is treatable.
At present, there is no vaccine for babesiosis. Preventing tick bites is the best way to avoid contracting this disease, or any other tick-borne illness. Seniors and people of every age can lower the risk by following these precautionary steps, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
Before you go outdoors
- Be aware of places where ticks may live. Most people know that ticks are found in woodsy areas, but many don't realize that you also may encounter them in shrubs or piles of leaves in your own yard. If you are hiking or walking on a path, walk in the center of the trail to avoid picking up one of these unwanted pests.
- Use an insect repellent containing DEET, and treat clothing and camping gear with permethrin, as recommended by the CDC.
- Make your yard less tick-friendly. Remove leaf litter, clear tall grasses and brush, and create gravel or wood chip barriers between your yard and wooded areas. Remove or protect plants that attract deer, which can spread ticks. Consider using a chemical control agent as recommended by the CDC.
After you come indoors
- Check your clothing for ticks. You might carry ticks into your home on your clothes. Remove any ticks you find. Placing clothes in the dryer on high heat for at least an hour has been found to effectively kill ticks.
- Take a shower and perform a tick check. Showering can wash off unattached ticks, and this is a good opportunity for a full-body tick check. Use a hand-held mirror so you can check your whole body, including places where ticks like to hide: under your arms, in and around ears, in your bellybutton, between your legs, around your waistband and in your hair. If necessary, assist elderly loved ones with a thorough tick check.
- If you find an attached tick, remove it as soon as possible. Follow tick removal instructions from the CDC. If you or a loved one has been bitten, be alert for rash, fever and other signs of illness, and call your healthcare provider if you notice any of these signs.
Protect yourself by protecting your pets
You can be bitten by a tick in your own home if it rides in on the family cat or dog. Keep ticks off of your pet with tick collars, sprays, shampoos and medications. Use these products only as recommended by the CDC and your veterinarian.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers updates on babesiosis and older adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides information for consumers and healthcare professionals about babesiosis and other tick-borne illnesses.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of babesiosis or other tick-borne illness.