“Many people who have had Lyme disease are terrified of going outdoors again.” That’s Deborah Lazar, a Vermont artist and a victim of Lyme disease, explaining why you and all of your plein air painting friends want to avoid this affliction. How? Lazar has some tips.
Lead Image: Deborah Lazar painting in the woods with clothing worn in a fashion to discourage tick bites
“Prevention is still the best,” says Lazar. In large part, this is because the problems associated with Lyme disease continue well after the infection is eliminated. Doctors and researchers are still unsure exactly how Lyme disease works, but it’s believed that it permanently damages nerves in the affected area, sometimes causing paralysis and sending along messages — sensations — that are unpleasant: pain, tingling, itching. Some recover almost completely; others feel the effects for the rest of their lives. Lyme disease is carried by the deer tick, and although the illness is thus blamed on the deer population, there is evidence to suggest that the disease originates in rodents, primarily mice and squirrels. The ticks move on to bigger hosts like deer, and eventually perhaps find a tasty plein air painter on whom to feed.
The tick and the disease are widespread all along the Eastern Seaboard, from Virginia north, and are also prevalent in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The ticks are mobile, often finding their way to the soles of feet, the chest, and along waistbands, and they favor the crotch area. Sometimes victims don’t even realize they were bitten. The infamous bulls-eye ring around the bite alerts some victims, while others merely note some flu-like symptoms before additional issues set in.
Tests for Lyme disease at present only look for the antibodies the human body creates to fight it. Researchers are working on identifying telltale proteins that will show where the bacterial infection is, and when it is gone. Treatment consists of antibiotics.
“For plein air painters, the risk is quite high,” asserts Lazar. After all, who else blazes trails through grass and woods, then stands still long enough for passengers to climb aboard and get themselves situated?
Lazar has tried to do everything right, and she’s been that vigilant for more than 30 years. She tucked her pants into her shoes or boots, checked herself for ticks after each excursion, showered upon returning home. She got Lyme disease. Even after recovering, and after taking additional precautions including the use of DEET, she found a tick on her person after a plein air outing. She is exasperated, but she has advice for concerned plein air painters.
“They are heat-seeking,” she says. “Most bites are in and around the abdominal area — places you may not be thinking to look. Tuck your pants into your socks and cover up. DEET is not enough.” Consider using permethrin, but know that it has its own issues. It kills cats, and has an unknown effect on humans. Lazar points out that companies sell clothes impregnated with the chemical. This may be the way to go. “It will kill the tick on contact,” she says. “Or maybe you can apply it to gaiters around the ankle, around the wrists, or on your belt. It originally came from a Chinese chrysanthemum, but I think it is made synthetically now, and that allows it to survive exposure to sunlight and last longer. It’s the only thing that can stop the tick.”
Although the ticks known to carry Lyme disease are most active in July and August, there is still ample possibility for infection any time the temperature is above freezing. If you find a tick, remove it using sharp, very pointed tweezers, grabbing its head as close to your skin as possible. Try to keep its head (which buries itself in the skin) attached to its body. “If it is still alive, that’s a good sign,” says Lazar. She recommends applying alcohol to the bite and washing one’s hands. “Keep an eye on it,” she says. “If you see the red circle around it, start antibiotics right away.” It might be a good idea to save the removed tick, or at least to get a good photograph of it. Identification can help narrow down the diagnosis.
Lazar seems very concerned about Lyme disease, no doubt because she was very cautious and was still infected. And after recovering, and doubling her efforts, she again found a tick on her after a plein air painting session. There is no better word to describe these disease carriers than “sneaky.” “I had nine spots on my body, but I never saw a tick and I didn’t know that I was bitten,” she says. “I showered every time I came back from being outdoors. I guess I missed this one.”