Lyme Disease as a Risk for Foresters and Loggers

Here's a long discussion about the risk of Lyme disease for people who work in the woods, and about precautions and treatment. June 14, 2014

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
I'm thinking about going back to college and becoming a forester, but I've heard a lot about deer ticks and Lyme disease in the northeast. How do loggers and foresters minimize this risk?

Forum Responses
(Forestry Forum)
From contributor G:
I took a series of three shots that were supposed to help prevent from getting the disease. I would consult a physician.

From the original questioner:
Yes, I've heard about that vaccine. However, I've read that it's only about 75% effective, and in any case, has been withdrawn from the market by the sole manufacturer, so we can't receive it these days.

From contributor Y:
From what I understand about Lyme disease, the offending tick has to be attached to its host for more than 24 hours before the host contracts the disease. Simply put, if you are sure to check yourself daily for ticks, your risk of contracting Lyme's disease is greatly diminished. Also, using tick repellent, wearing light color clothes, and tucking your pant cuff into your boots will minimize ticks as well (some people even think garlic tablets help deter tick bites). If you enjoy working outdoors, and think you would otherwise be happy in forestry, don't let the threat of Lyme's disease deter you. Any career will have potential hazards. Learn about them and take steps to avoid them, but don't let a potential risk keep you from doing something you want to do.

From the original questioner:
For example, how are you supposed to find a tick that's the size of a poppy seed buried deep in the hair on your head? Are you speaking from personal experience on this one, or is just from things you have read as well? Sorry, but I have to ask, since this is the only thing that worries me about the New England forests. I have known a couple of neighbors up here, who contracted Lyme disease. Also my dog had it.

One forester I spoke with about this, said that he pulled six deer ticks off his body last season. Of course, to your point, he doesn't really worry much about the disease either. Then again, he's just a kid out of college, so maybe he just hasn't been out in the field long enough to have acquired the disease or since he comes from a long line of foresters maybe his family is immune to it like the deer. Having been an avid surfer, deer hunter (in the South) commercial pilot, skydiver (licensed jumpmaster), licensed scuba diver, offshore sailor, ski instructor and (lately) snowboarder, I've gotten pretty used to taking calculated risks in this life. I just like to know that I've evaluated the risk fairly accurately, and have reasonably minimized it.

From contributor Y:
I have been a professional forester for nearly ten years, but I haven't worked in the northeast so I can't say for sure how bad the Lyme disease is there. I work in Virginia, and while Lyme disease is present here, to my knowledge it's not rampant. As far as my personal experience, during the summer I generally tuck my pant cuff into my boots when working in the woods, and check myself regularly. Personally, I don't like the chemicals like Off and especially Permanone - I'd rather have the ticks. In Virginia, the deer ticks are large enough to spot crawling on you pretty easily, not like the little seed ticks. If you get bit by a tick, in most cases you can feel it in a few hours - it will start to itch. Of course, you do have a valid concern. A person could take all of these measures and more and still miss the one tick that could give you Lyme disease. That's the risk you take. However, as I understand it, Lyme disease is curable with some antibiotics and you're as good as new. Have you spoken with your doctor or with your local health department? They may be able to give you insight on the prevention and cure of Lyme's disease.

From the original questioner:
Personally I use Permethrin and DEET, but I agree it's not the ideal solution. I'm still in the South, so I don't have a doctor up in Maine yet. Yes, it is curable, but the problem as I understand it is that the disease mimics many others, and so is often misdiagnosed as something less serious. Then by the time the misdiagnosis is discovered the Lyme disease has done its permanent damage. I'm hoping that the permethrin and DEET, along with the pants-tucking, body checking, etc. will give me reasonably full protection. With all the new medical innovations these days, I was just hoping some forester on this forum had a magic bullet.

From contributor W:
I'm not a forester but live in the woods of MN and have found plenty of deer ticks on me, but only two that were burrowed in. Deer ticks tend to go for the waist line, Iíve never found one on my head. They burrow in to your skin and if they carry Lyme (not all deer ticks do) you will get a perfect bulls-eye around it. I know of at least six people that have had to be treated for it one guy twice and none have any ill-effects. If you get hit you just need to monitor it and get in if you see the bulls-eye. Deer ticks are especially thick where you find a lot of deer.

From contributor U:
I used to hunt raccoons at night with some hunters that were pretty serious about the sport. They would take sulfur tablets during this time of the year so ticks would not attach themselves to their skin. I never really understood how this worked, but it might be worth investigating. I would ask a physician or pharmacist for their input.

From contributor E:
Lyme is nothing to fool with. First, there is no hard and fast test. My doctor called the Western Blot the "Gold Standard" for Lyme - in fact, New York State requires it for the diagnosis but the Centers For Disease Control, who defined the test, say it's only for statistical purposes, that it misses a huge proportion of cases. Symptoms are all over the place. A hundred people will present in a hundred ways. A very few will get hit so hard that they may never work again, despite years of IV antibiotics. I know some of them, it's not pretty. If you catch it right away, I think the first 48 hours, a single big dose of the right antibiotic can wipe it out. I heard it's an 80% chance, if you like those odds (I don't). Otherwise, the three week cycle it takes to wipe out the bacterial cysts leaves me woozy and bloated, just not myself till I recover.

I've had it a few times and it's the worst I've ever felt. I was confused and making poor decisions for three months, and paying for treatment out of pocket because insurance companies are not particularly supportive on this one. I've also been bit a few times when I did not get it. Use prompt and proper treatment no matter how painful, otherwise it limits you in ways you can't imagine.

I grew up in the woods and I love forests. It's hard for me to dress up to be with my woody friends. What's posted here about prevention is good - the ticks don't have a lot of energy, but they can bite quickly and embed themselves within eight hours (my experience), though often it takes longer. They can't burrow through socks pulled over pants, they can't get through a belt over your shirt, but then can get under your hair or ear or crawl up your sleeves and you won't feel them. You may or may not feel itchy from the bite, and you may or may not feel it right away (though the second time you'll be much more aware than the first). The bullseye rash, a certain diagnosis of Lyme, only happens 30-40% of the time. The upshot - be very careful, read up from responsible websites, don't accept easy answers and realize that the disease is very tricky. If you can't handle the precautions stay away.

From contributor E:
When I was a kid we never worried. I can't count how many dog ticks (size of a small watermelon seed) I pulled off of me, some of them fully bloated. We hit them with a smoldering match or a lit cigarette to make them back out. Nowadays we know that's a big no-no, then regurgitate and inject you with bacteria. While the dog ticks don't carry Lyme, they do carry Burgdorfia and Ehrlichiosis, which are related diseases. Lone Star ticks are about the same size and carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever as well.

As more people study these diseases, some claim that it's easy for the antibiotics to miss some of the bacteria, that they can linger long term and cause troubles like arthritis, decreased nervous/brain function and compromised immune system. There is growing suspicion that there are other related illnesses that might account for some of the variability of symptoms and difficulty of treatment. Not to get all gloom and doom here, but it feels to me like life is out of balance and our relationship with nature just isn't right. These diseases are nothing to fool with. I've heard of a lot of upstate New York doctors who are much more aware of the disease than five years ago. They tend to prescribe the recommended dose of antibiotics, which many experienced Lyme doctors say are too little for not long enough. I'm still hearing of doctors who misdiagnose or under-prescribe. What do I suggest? DEET is a neurotoxin, so is the constant exposure worth the chance of Lyme? Dress smart, that hasn't changed.