We all may be familiar with tick-borne infections and illnesses like Lyme disease but you might not have heard about a Texas native that can cause an odd allergy in those it takes a bite out of. Amblyomma americanum, or the lone star tick as it is commonly known, has been found to be responsible for inducing an allergy in some of the people it bites, and for the carnivores out there it could be a walking nightmare.
This creepy crawly is identifiable by the yellow dot on its back but has been recently made famous by its ability to make Texas barbeque enthusiasts sweat because a bite from this little guy can leave you with an allergy to red meat. The actual allergy is to a carbohydrate called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose that is found in most mammalian meat like cows, pigs, sheep and more. This means fish and poultry is still ingestible but that big juicy steak is off the table. The lone star tick contains this same carbohydrate in its saliva and this is thought to be the cause of the alpha-gal allergy after being bit. Humans do not have alpha-gal in our cells so when the tick introduces the carbohydrate, along with bacteria and other infectious organisms, our bodies most likely start to identify alpha-gal as a foreign infection and begin to target it when it enters the body. The bad news for us is that when it attacks the sugar in our gut after ingesting red meat the side effects are uncomfortable, to say the least, just ask anyone with a food allergy, not fun.
Symptoms can include a stuffy or a runny nose, hives or rash, shortness of breath, swollen tongue, nausea and vomiting, indigestion, itchy skin, sneezing, asthma symptom exacerbation and in severe cases anaphylactic reaction that can lead to throat closure.
A study at the University of Virginia estimated that there are more than 1,500 people with alpha-gal allergy in the United States and, though cases are most common in the areas where the lone star tick is traditionally found, recent years have shown a spread of the lone star ticks habitat. Rising temperatures have allowed the tick to survive in states like New Hampshire and Minnesota that were previously too cold for them to live in and these states have started to report cases of alpha-gal allergy as well. If it is not bad enough that this tick can cause red meat allergy it can also pass dangerous pathogens. The lone star tick is also the major carrier for an infection called human monocytotropic ehrlichiosis (HME) that can cause symptoms like headaches, fever, muscle pain, and chills. This can lead to vomiting and stomach pains with diarrhea and if the condition becomes severe it can cause neurological symptoms that can cause permanent damage.
There are a lot of dangerous ticks out there that can pass even more dangerous diseases and though we are heading into winter and out of tick season don’t drop your guard. Rising temperatures have spread ticks to new areas and allowed them to be more active throughout the year so stay on top of your tick checks and be safe out there.