Lyme disease has been diagnosed in every state in the U.S. except Hawaii, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Lyme disease cases are more concentrated in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, with 14 states accounting for over 96 percent of the 30,000 cases reported to the CDC. However, CDC studies suggest that an estimated 300,000 cases of Lyme disease occur every year.
Lyme disease is transmitted through a bite from a blacklegged tick (also known as a deer tick or a bear tick) that is infected with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. Not all ticks are infected with the bacteria, but if a tick is, it must be attached for 24 to 48 hours to transmit the bacteria; the longer it’s attached, the greater the chance of getting Lyme disease.
In the farming population, exposure to fields, woodlands, and pastures can raise the risk of contracting Lyme disease from infected blacklegged ticks. Early symptoms for Lyme disease include fever, fatigue, headache, joint pain, muscle aches, skin rash, or other general symptoms.
People treated with appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely. Left untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system. In other cases, despite treatment, Lyme disease can cause long-term and chronic effects.
For a farmer, those long-term effects of exhaustion, muscle and joint pain, as well as other symptoms, combined with the daily chores, mental stress, and physical labor, can be debilitating.
A rough four years
Amy Gable, of Bedford, Pa., was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2017 after four years of suffering from unexplained health issues. Her family doctor finally sent her to a rheumatologist for testing, which came back positive for Lyme disease. She was prescribed a 30-day dose of antibiotics, but in her case that only made things worse, she said.
She and her husband, Aaron, have three children, ranging in age from 4 to 11. They live on Snider Homestead Farm and milk 140 registered Guernseys and Holsteins in southwest Pennsylvania.
In the four years prior to her official diagnosis, she underwent months of physical therapy for lower back pain. Doctors prescribed a daily dose of Meloxicam for pain.
When her hands, wrists, and lower arms started to hurt, she went through two months of occupational therapy. “My therapist told me I would have to live with the pain,” she said.
With a young family and a full-time farm inspector job, the pain and symptoms were taking their toll on Amy. She suffered severe hair loss, flaking skin, memory loss, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. “I didn’t want to leave my room or see people,” she said. “Most days it was a painful struggle for me to leave my bed.”
Her family doctor sent her to an orthopedist, who gave her shots in both her wrists that lasted three months . . . and still the pain was there.
When the Lyme disease diagnosis came through, the third day of antibiotics made the symptoms worse, she said. She began to do some research and talk to others who have chronic Lyme disease, and she made major changes in her life.
“I resigned from my full-time, off-farm job and took time to try and heal myself,” she said. “I cut gluten from my diet, limited my sugar intake, and started walking and doing yoga. I took detox baths at least three times a week, and I stay away from chemicals such as hair dye.”
The size of a sesame seed
Amy said she doesn’t remember having a tick on her before she was diagnosed. The actual size of an adult blacklegged tick is tiny, about the size of a sesame seed. However, most humans are infected through the bites of immature ticks called nymphs. At less than 2 mm across, nymphs are hard to see.
These days, Amy works as an independent dairy nutrition consultant, a seed salesperson, and works part time as a milk inspector and FARM evaluator. She also helps on the farm, feeding or milking as needed.
Milking cows in their tie stall barn can impact her physical health. “We move eight milking units, and the next day my wrists and arms are in pain,” she said. “When I am off the farm, I have to limit the time I spend driving as it also wears on my body.”
Her husband has been very supportive through this process, she said. “The main thing that limits me is if I do too much in one day and overuse my body, I will most likely feel it the next day and have what I call a ‘flare-up’ day,” Amy said.
As a veteran of the showring, Amy spent hours showing Guernsey cattle growing up and then as a member of the Snider Homestead team. As her children start their 4-H dairy cattle showing days, she has had to make changes in how she helps them.
“As a mother to young children who love to show, I have unfortunately had to limit the time I spend holding the halter inside and outside of the showring,” she said.
Despite the high risk of tick exposure at the farm and traveling with the family for vacations, she said she hasn’t limited her or her family’s time spent outdoors. Ticks can be found everywhere — fields, woods, and backyards. The Gable family members use an essential oil spray and wear boots to cover their ankles while they are outside. “I also carry a tick twister with me at all times,” she stressed.
The CDC recommends treating or purchasing clothing and gear with products containing 0.5 percent permethrin. Using Environmental Protection Agency or EPA-registered insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone can also help repel ticks.
It is also recommended to check clothing, gear, and pets for ticks; shower within two hours of being outdoors; and immediately remove any ticks after checking the entire body.
Still a struggle
As she moves through her daily tasks, Amy says there are good days and bad days. She credits Aaron for listening when she says it’s a “down day” but recognizes that others may not be as in tune with Lyme disease.“If you think you might have Lyme disease, talk to your doctor so you can get treatment sooner rather than later,” she said.
For more information on Lyme disease, visit the Center for Disease Control website at www.cdc.gov/lyme. You can also visit your state’s Department of Health website and search for “Lyme disease” for regional and local information.