“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.

“Melchin Road, Brattleboro, Vermont,” by Deborah Lazar
“Melchin Road, Brattleboro, Vermont,” by Deborah Lazar

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.

“Canoe Brook Road, Dummerston, Vermont,” by Deborah Lazar
“Canoe Brook Road, Dummerston, Vermont,” by Deborah Lazar

“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.”


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8 COMMENTS

  1. Lyme is indeed a scary thing. But there are other tick-borne diseases that are as bad or worse, including anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Outdoor painters need to be vigilant, as Deborah describes. Another approach is to stay on pavement as much as possible, although even that isn’t sure-fire. Still, we shouldn’t give into these “tick terrorists.” Fear is a worse enemy, and I think with proper precautions and follow-up, our chances of acquiring Lyme or one of the other diseases can be less.

  2. I am a new plein air painter but a long time bow hunter in Texas. Bow hunters face the same problems with ticks in October here in Texas. A tip I read years ago seems to work. Sulphur powder. I bought a large container of it. Dust my boots, pants, shirts and gloves liberally before I step off into the bush. After taking that precaution, I have only found one tick after a day in the woods. Sulphur powder is readily available on line.

  3. I agree with Deborah that prevention and Permethrin are the best route. I use a concentrated Permethrin sprayed to saturation on my clothes and shoes and let it dry the day before I go painting. After having Lyme and co-infections for 13 years, I’m more cautious to where I go now, even with being protected. To give hope to others dealing with Lyme and not getting results with the traditional methods, I wrote a blog about my journey and how I healed from it: http://www.sharonwill.com/blog/115250/how-i-healed-from-chronic-Lyme-disease.

  4. Bitten: the secret history of Lyme disease and biological weapons by Kris Newby is an interesting read on this subject. oh well.

    • Yes I have read that book. I contacted the author. While the US admits to using ticks as biological weapons for some diseases. No one has yet taken responsibility for the borrelia Burgdorferi the causative agent for Lyme disease.
      As you may already know the bacteria B Burgdorferi was found in the frozen man. Unfortunately there are still many unanswered questions.

  5. Wow. This article came out in 2016? I have a few editorial/corrections/changes to add.

    First. Permethrin and cats. Sawyer brand permethrin employee told me it is dangerous to cats when it’s wet! So make sure if you spray your own clothing, to keep the cat away. BTW. It’s also dangerous to humans when wet, so be sure to only wear clothes that are “completely” 200% dry. Permethrin works as a contact repellent. When a tick walks in you if it comes into contact with the permethrin it will jump off.

    Only three things work to repel ticks. Permethrin treated clothing requires contact. But Deet, oil of lemon eucalyptus and percardin have worked in a laboratory setting.

    Ticks can be active any time the temperature is above around 40 degrees. Ticks have three life stages. Larve, nymph and adult. The nymph stage ticks come out in Summer. Ticks need three meals to complete their life cycle. The nymph ticks are half the size of the adult ticks. They are clear until they have a blood meal.

    I was diagnosed with disseminated Lyme exactly 5 years ago, August 15, 2015. I had a few tick attachments over the next two years. But then I started wearing gaiters (like long knee sox) over my calf’s and a permethrin treated jacket. August 2019, one nymph attached to my ankle, below the gaiter. I felt a little prick, it was the size of a skin flake. I sent it to Umass tickreport.com. No diseases.

    I have permanent nerve damage (Short fiber neuropathy) from where the the tick attached in 2015. I’m still dealing with the fallout from that.

    I managed to be an outdoor painter for 40 years and I just tucked my pants into my sox, before I got my life altering tick bite. Now I wear permethrin treated clothing. I hope you ate luckier than me and prevent them from getting on you.

    I suggest wearing permethrin treated clothing. And if you find one attached, send it to the lab at Umass to find out what diseases it’s carrying.

    Thanks for republishing the article outdoor painter, and Erich.

    Be well paint on…

    Deborah Lazar

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