A tick-ing problem in living history…

Bruises, bumps, scrapes, sore muscles, sunburn, windburn, chapped skin, blisters, an occasional dislocation, joint twist, strain or sprain…. Those body issues probably sound familiar when doing manual labor of living history interpretation or historical farming.

ticksHowever in the last few years, a new adventure has arisen: bacteria. In the last few years, bacteria and viruses carried by ticks and other insects have required the need for additional attention, using modern-day eyes to fight illnesses that would have put our historical fore-parents down, stopping their traditional work and harming their homesteads.

Sarah Cooper of Columbia, MD knows these bacteria well. Unknowingly she was bitten by a tick while working at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean VA, while working as one of the 18th-century farmers. Her bad experience can guide to protecting your health and safety.

One November day, Sarah found a dessert-plate sized target shaped rash on her back. Although she always wore long 18th century petticoats, layers of clothes, and high socks as all the literature on preventing tick-borne disease had warned, Sarah knew that rashes were a a bad sign, so she went to an urgent care facility. She had no health insurance and she hoped that the urgent care doctors could diagnose her symptoms. The Lyme disease tests were negative; however Sarah came down with weeks of flu-like symptoms that laid her very low.

Little did Sarah know that new tick bites do not produce enough antibodies to show up as a “positive” for the Lyme tests.

Still ill longer than she expected for a typical illness, Sarah visited a different urgent care facility; this new facility doctor told Sarah that she never tested for Lyme when there is a rash and patients describe working or playing in woods-like or farm settings. She immediately put Sarah on 2 weeks of antibiotics. Sarah felt better soon, but within six months, the symptoms returned.

It’s been several years now; Sarah is still plagued with fatigue, exhaustion and other issues that developed during the initial Lyme illness. To this day she is still going to rounds of doctors seeking solutions. Said again: years later, Sarah – like many people affected by Lyme disease – is still affected by the after-effects of tick-borne bacteria that she received years ago. Although Sarah has switched to working at a different historical agricultural park, insect-related health issues happen: She was bitten by a spider within the last couple of weeks.

TickLifeCycleLyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, (RMSP) and ehrlichiosis, are all carried by ticks, but different ticks. All of these diseases need at least several hours for an attached tick to release its bacteria; one source says that that bacteria that cause Lyme disease can be transmitted if a tick is attached for at least 24 hours. Lyme is common while RMSF is rare; yet Lyme Disease symptoms mimic a simple illness, yet possibly affect the brain, nervous system, eyes, joints, and heart. Often there are shooting pains, insomnia, and – as some report – an inability to read. Lyme Disease is most prevalent in the New England, Mid- and South-Atlantic, and Upper Midwest. (Canadian Lyme information is here.)

A good overview of tick-borne diseases – and how ticks plan their attack – is here.

Because we are all a family of living history specialists working most often at outdoor sites, Sarah recommends several easy precautions to counter the threat of Lyme disease. These precautions are:

  1. Check yourself with a mirror, or have a buddy help check your entire body each day after exiting tall grasses, fields, or woods areas in spring, summer, and fall. Do not leave the site unless you check your entire skin and scalp as well as the skin crevices that they prefer. If you forget to check yourself, that may be the day that a tick attaches itself to you. Ticks crawl, so they may enter at your sock but also find their way inside your stays, corset, or drawers.
  2. Cut a short walking path through long grasses such as rye, wheat, or weeds. Ticks crawl from grasses onto their prey, but they don’t jump. Make sure that you can walk through your fields and areas without touching the grasses. You can even make this one of your farm duties by cutting paths during a farm day with a scythe.
  3. Try to limit your time in tall grasses as much as possible, if possible – and be ready to inspect yourself and your buddy after your grass adventures.
  4. Wear caps as much as possible. Ticks crawl but they don’t jump, so there is a reduced possibility for ticks to attach themselves to your scalp unless you bend your covered head into the grasses.
  5. If you do get a tick from your site and see a doctor, immediately report it to your site in order to file for Worker’s Compenstation. Many sites have no- or low-health insurance, yet the doctors bills can add up – especially if the disease becomes into a chronic illness. Check with your states’laws on the statutes, such as this information on Lyme disease, ticks, and Worker’s Compensation.
  6. Insist on a test for lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever when you see the doctor, even if you don’t have typical symtoms for either disease. If you work outdoors, especially in grasses, you have high risk factors for tick-borne bacterial diseases.
  7. Insist that your site provide a DEET insecticide spray for its staff. It’s better to provide for all staff members by making DEET part of site provisions. However if your site won’t provide DEET, make sure that you buy your own DEET and apply it every day that you are outdoors in tall grasses, fields, or woods. If you are allergic to DEET, consult your health care provider for effective alternatives.
  8. Removing the tick: If you do find an attached tick, use a tweezer, or one of the new technology of tick-removal devices: Tick-Twister, Tick Key or  Tick Card (available in the UK, Europe and Australia) to remove the tick fully and completely.
  9. Do your homework on what ticks, biting insects, and arachnids are in your area. Check with your state Cooperative Extension Service or use the following links:


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