Since ticks can be infected with bacteria, viruses, or parasites, they are known to be carriers of disease like Lyme disease. Recent reports have shown that the Lone Star tick may inflict a red meat, and in some cases, dairy allergy. These allergies are rare, but reported cases have been steadily increasing.
What is Causing this Allergy?
The Lone Star tick, which can be identified by a white spot on its back, can trigger an allergy to the carbohydrate, galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose. It is more commonly known as an alpha-gal allergy. Once diagnosed, patients must avoid red meat, such as beef, pork, lamb, and veal. In addition to red meat, some patients find that they can no longer eat dairy products. Dr. Scott Commins, who specializes in researching alpha-gal and is an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, tells NPR that “about 15 to 20 percent of patients with the alpha-gal allergy also report getting symptoms from dairy, especially high-fat dairy such as ice cream.”
Dr. Commins was among the first to link the allergy to ticks about ten years ago, and even now, it is still unclear to scientists how lone star ticks are causing this allergic reaction. Regardless, Dr. Commins tells NPR that, “whatever the tick is doing, it seems that it’s a very potent awakener for our immune system to produce antibodies. And in this case, it’s antibodies to this very particular sugar in red meat.” According to Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, head of allergy and clinical immunology at the University of Virginia, one possible cause for an increase in cases may be linked to the rising deer population. He tells Today News that “a deer can carry 500 ticks – primarily lone star ticks.”
What Are the Symptoms and Effects?
NPR reports of a specific case, in which Laura Sterling, a realtor who lives in Severna Park, Maryland, got a tick bite while walking her dog. Three weeks later, Stirling woke up in the middle of the night with hives after eating Italian-style pork sausage for dinner.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Erin McGintee, an allergist at ENT and Allergy in Southampton, has seen 450 cases of alpha-gal since 2010. Alpha-gal allergies are hard to identify because the allergic reaction typically hits three to six hours after eating. Most allergic reactions usually occur within minutes of eating to two hours after. Symptoms include hives, itching, severe abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Like many severe food allergies, alpha-gal can induce anaphylaxis, which causes blood pressure to quickly drop and breathing to stop.
What Can People Do?
People with the allergy can still eat poultry and seafood, and there are many dairy alternatives on the market. The allergy may not be permanent. Dr. Commins says that the allergy “can resolve,” but that people need “to avoid additional tick bites for the allergic response to wane.”
To avoid ticks altogether, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends insect repellent with DEET and lemon eucalyptus oil on exposed areas, and to cover up as much as possible. Additionally, treating clothing with permethrin can help. You can find additional information on how to keep ticks away at the Consumers’ Research website here.
Where Are These Ticks Found?
The CDC reports that the lone star tick is mostly found in the southeastern and eastern regions of the United States. The tick used to only be common in the southeast, but in recent years, at least 100 cases have been reported in areas like Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Long Island. The map below is from the CDC’s website.