The arrival of warm weather in the United States coincides with the start of tick season, when people are most at risk from bites that can lead to a range of unpleasant conditions. Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in humans, but the threat of alpha-gal syndrome, which causes allergic reactions to eating red meat, is now a growing concern among health officials. public health.
The spread of the lone star tick, named for the white spot visible on the back of females, has been linked to an increase in the number of cases of alpha-gal syndrome in an expanding territory. Native to the southeastern United States, the species has successfully moved north and west over the past two decades, surviving milder winters as climates warm.
Solitary ticks were observed in Pennsylvania in 2017 and appeared across much of New England as entomologists sought to learn more about the species. Tracing the origins of cases of alpha-gal syndrome is difficult due to people traveling during the summer months when bites are most likely to occur.
Allergic reactions to lone star tick bites are thought to be related to the protein-bound sugar alpha-galactose. The main mammalian hosts of the lone star tick contain these sugars, which are then passed on to human hosts through the insect’s saliva.
People don’t naturally produce alpha-gal sugars. This makes us genetically vulnerable because the human immune system perceives sugars as a foreign substance. Initially, a person bitten by a lone star tick may have a mild to moderate allergic reaction at the site of the tick bite, which is the result of an initial antibody response.
The real problem arises when a person bitten by a solitary tick later consumes red meat containing alpha-gal sugars. The body again mounts an immune response, often much more severe and with a delay of two hours or more. This can lead to much more serious symptoms, including hives, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, indigestion, and diarrhea.
In the worst documented cases, people with alpha-gal syndrome went into anphylactic shock or suffered from swelling of the lips, throat, tongue, and eyelids. Some people also experience a drop in blood pressure, dizziness, and fainting.
Once a person has alpha-gal syndrome, their red meat allergy is lifelong. Others who are bitten by solitary ticks have milder reactions or develop no apparent meat allergy.
The New Jersey Department of Health recently shared information and advice on the risks of solitary ticks to educate the public as the insects become more prevalent in the area.
Almost a decade ago, in 2013, it was estimated that there were approximately 5,000 diagnosed cases of alpha-gal syndrome in the United States. correspond to the consumption of red meat.
The Washington Post recently interviewed a few people who have developed alpha-gal syndrome in response to a lone star tick bite. Keith Tremel, a Maryland native and competitive barbecue cook, recalled the time five years ago when he was bitten in the thigh by a tick. This woke him up in his bed and he pulled it out, but he didn’t realize the extent of the problem until he ate a burger shortly afterwards and developed mysterious symptoms.
When the pattern was repeated after subsequent burgers, Tremel did some research and came across information about alpha-gal syndrome. He went to see his doctor, who hadn’t even heard of the disease.
“It wasn’t comforting when I realized I knew more about alpha-gal than a medical professional,” Tremel told the Post.
Tremel had to change his way of cooking, avoiding red meat and pork for himself. Even handling raw meat sometimes gives him reactions, so he wears protective gloves.
Another man, a retired entomologist, said he suffered severe reactions to red meat after being bitten by a lone star tick in Virginia. He was diagnosed with alpha-gal syndrome about six years ago and remembers losing his sight on the way to the emergency room.
Most people with alpha-gal syndrome are not affected by the consumption of poultry or dairy products. The emergence of meat alternatives and animals genetically modified to eliminate alpha-gal sugars could also allow people with the condition to enjoy meat again.
The New Jersey Department of Health offers a number of tips for preventing tick bites and instructions on how to remove them using fine-tipped tweezers. The area of a bite should also be cleaned with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
When it comes to solitary ticks specifically, it’s important to remember that only females have the distinctive mark on their backs. Males can also transmit alpha-gal syndrome, but are not as easily identified. In general, solitary ticks are larger and have longer limbs than deer ticks or blacklegged ticks, which transmit Lyme disease. They also differ in appearance from dog ticks, which are comparable in size but have shorter limbs.
Alpha-gal syndrome research represents a growing field as medical entomologists and immunologists seek more effective ways to monitor the disease and solitary tick populations. The best steps people can take include learn and practice precautions around ticks when spending time outdoors and maintaining properties.