With tick season approaching, take heed: a meat allergy is the surprising and dangerous side effect of a Lone Star Tick bite.
The dangers of tick bites are well-known to people near wooded or rural areas, most significantly due to the spread of Lyme disease. However, there’s a new tick problem on the rise, and it’s not something you would typically expect from a bug bite.
Scientists have found that a bite from a Lone Star Tick can infect people with a potentially deadly sensitivity to red meat. Even if a person has been grilling and eating steaks their whole life, the Lone Star Tick bite takes meat off the menu. (The podcast RadioLab presents a tale of one devoted steak-lover’s realization that she was suddenly allergic to meat.) The symptoms after consuming beef, pork, or gelatin with this allergy can range from hives, swollen lips and throat, and itching, to vomiting, diarrhea, and life-threatening heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing problems.
The Lone Star Tick, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is found throughout the Southeastern and Eastern U.S., and is “a very aggressive tick that bites humans. The adult female is distinguished by a white dot or “lone star” on her back. Lone star tick saliva can be irritating; redness and discomfort at a bite site does not necessarily indicate an infection. The nymph and adult females most frequently bite humans and transmit disease.”
This is especially important to know right now, since 2017 is shaping up to be an especially bad year for lyme disease and tick bites thanks to deer overpopulation.
It works like this: After the Lone Star Tick bites a person, their immune system flags the saliva and fluids from the bite, which contain the carbohydrate “alpha-gal” as an enemy invader. The tick has this in its saliva from a previous blood meal, probably a deer. The blood combines with another organism in the tick’s saliva to cause this reaction and subsequent allergy in the human body to alpha gal.
The problem is that the carbohydrate alpha-gal is present in beef, pork, gelatin (and many other medical substances such as IV fluid replacements, blood thinners, and replacement heart valves.) Once a person is bitten, their body sees all of these alpha-gal containing foods, fluids, and medical devices as enemy invaders too, and begins to attack the body to get rid of them if they are consumed or injected.
“We know at this point that there are over 3,500 cases,” Dr. Scott Commins, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics in the division of rheumatology, allergy & immunology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told Today. “I think there are many more.”
At UNC alone, 350 patients are now suffering from alpha-gal syndrome, and there are more cases cropping up throughout Georgia and Kentucky. Commins estimates that in many of the areas where the lone star tick lives, 1 to 5 percent will develop it, Today reports. The Lone Star tick can be found in the U.S. from Texas to Iowa, all the way up to New England. The meat allergy is also transferred by the castor bean tick in Europe, and the paralysis tick in Australia.
Resarch is ongoing, but there is also a substantial concern that some people may not even realize they have developed the allergy. Even if they have a reaction, they may just think they’ve been hit with common stomach cramping or food poisoning. It’s even more difficult because the reaction often doesn’t occur until three to six hours after consuming meat.
After all, if a person had never heard of alpha-gal syndrome, who would guess that they were suddenly allergic to red meat?
There is currently no cure, though some people seem to recover over time if they are not bitten again. For now, you can protect yourself by taking precautions to prevent tick bites while you’re in the woods, such as covering up exposed skin and staying on trail—ticks hang out on leaves and in high grass and wait for you to bump right into them, so staying out of heavy brush will help.
If you are bitten by a Lone Star tick (remember, females have that white marking on their back, but males do not), keep in mind: you should probably get tested for alpha-gal before you grab your next burger.