By now, many people are familiar with the most common risks associated with a tick bite. But Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever aren’t the only illnesses you have to worry about. Researchers have discovered one very peculiar reaction that has recently become a major problem.
In 2014, doctors began to see a rise in meat allergies suddenly appearing in people bitten by the Lone Star tick. An article from NBC explains how the reaction is triggered:
“The bugs harbor a sugar that humans don’t have, called alpha-gal. The sugar is also found in red meat — beef, pork, venison, rabbit — and even some dairy products. It’s usually fine when people encounter it through food that gets digested. But a tick bite triggers an immune system response, and in that high-alert state, the body perceives the sugar the tick transmitted to the victim’s bloodstream and skin as a foreign substance, and makes antibodies to it. That sets the stage for an allergic reaction the next time the person eats red meat. At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, “I see two to three new cases every week,” said Dr. Scott Commins, who with a colleague, Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, published the first paper tying the tick to the illness in 2011.”
As the Lone Star tick spread from the Southwest and the East to more parts of the country, incidents of the reaction have increased. NBC recently followed up on this issue by exploring the prevalent allergy today and explaining how to identify the symptoms.
“A tick-related meat allergy has been quietly spreading across the southern and eastern U.S. over the past two decades, but in recent years the number of cases have steadily risen. A tick bite in some people can kick off a sensitivity to red meat that can result in symptoms such as itching, hives, swollen lips and breathing problems. The reaction can sometimes be life threatening.
“We know at this point that there are over 3,500 cases,” says Dr. Scott Commins, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics in the division of rheumatology, allergy & immunology at the Thurston Research Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “I think there are many more.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t have data on the number of people who have developed the allergy, but Commins estimates that in the areas where the lone star tick is common, 1 to 5 percent will develop it. At UNC alone, there are 350 patients with the allergy, known as alpha-gal syndrome. “I know of a practice in Kentucky that has over 100 cases and there is a group down in Georgia near Savannah that has over 50 cases,” Commins says.
At Vanderbilt University, the syndrome was rarely seen a few years ago. Now, the university’s doctors are treating 160 patients with the syndrome.
Scientists currently believe lone star ticks pick up alpha-gal after biting a deer, says Dr. Andrew Nickels, an assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at Vanderbilt.
When the tick later bites a human, it passes along the alpha-gal, a substance found in all red meats, including beef, pork, lamb and venison.
It’s thought that in some people the immune system spots alpha-gal as soon as it enters the blood stream and flags the unfamiliar molecule as an enemy invader.
When someone is sensitized to alpha-gal, meat consumption can lead to a host of symptoms, which can include hives; swollen lips, eyes, tongue and throat; respiratory issues; vomiting; diarrhea; increased heart rate and low blood pressure.
Diagnosis of alpha-gal syndrome can be difficult because the allergic reaction is delayed — three to six hours after exposure, compared to minutes for other food allergies.
Also, some people don’t have obvious allergic symptoms.
“Some just get terrible stomach upset and bad abdominal cramping six hours after eating beef,” Commins says. “We are concerned these patients are not coming in to get medical attention.”
There are a lot of unanswered questions about the syndrome.
“We don’t know if there is a predisposition that some people have that makes them more likely to develop an allergy after being bitten,” says Dr. Anesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “We don’t know how many times someone has to be bitten before they develop the allergy. The lone star tick has been around for a long time and people have been bitten for a long time. Why are we seeing this now?”
Although there is no cure for the syndrome, some people seem to recover if they aren’t bitten again by a tick, Commins says. Those who remain sensitized are told to avoid all red meats and gelatins, and in some patients, even dairy foods.”
As this allergic response becomes more common, it’s especially important to take the proper precautions to prevent tick bites so you can protect yourself and your family from alpha-gal syndrome, as well as more established diseases such as Lyme and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. To go a step further, contact DC Mosquito Squad today to find out about how we can help control ticks in your own backyard.
Read more about ticks in our related blog articles:
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Lyme Disease And Why It’s So Scary
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The Tick Genome That Transmits Lyme Disease
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