Ticks: They’re tiny pests that stop outdoor fun in its tracks. Thousands of people in the U.S. are bitten by them each year, and federal data shows cases of tick-borne diseases — including the most common, Lyme disease — are on the rise.
Fortunately, experts agree that simple strategies can help people of all ages lower their risk of falling victim to ticks. Here’s how:
Know your ticks, know your risk
One major misconception is that all ticks carry Lyme disease, says tick expert Thomas N. Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter Resource Center. Instead, different species of ticks carry different disease-causing bacteria, and the life stage of the tick — larva, nymph or adult — also matters.
Lyme disease, for example, is most commonly spread by black-legged ticks, also called deer ticks, in their poppy seed-size nymph stage. Another thing to keep in mind, Mather says, is that only some ticks will harbor disease-causing bacteria in the first place. Among black-legged ticks in most places in the Northeast, an estimated 20 percent of nymphs and 50 percent of adult females carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.
According to a 2021 estimate based on insurance records and reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 476,000 people are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease each year, with reported cases most common among middle-aged adults and young children. Susan Paskewitz, an entomology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the prevalence of Lyme cases among middle-aged adults has to do with behavior and activities, like spending more time outdoors, rather than any sort of biological susceptibility.
Tick-borne illnesses can pose serious health risks, especially for older adults, says CDC spokesperson Kate Fowlie. One such disease is babesiosis, also transmitted by black-legged ticks, which causes flu-like symptoms and can be life-threatening for older adults and those with compromised immune systems.
Because different species are found in different parts of the country, the risk of tick-borne illnesses varies by region. Lone star ticks, for example, are commonly found throughout the eastern, southeastern and south-central states and transmit a disease called ehrlichiosis, which, like babesiosis, can also be more severe among older age groups.