Research has revealed that the bite of the lone star tick has now been linked to the development of an allergy to red meat. The brownish-red ticks known for their arrival alongside spring each year in the American Southeast are now also known for causing many to develop an allergy specifically to a sugar found in red meat known as “alpha-gal.” The allergy can generally be detected through a simple blood test.
Researchers from the University of Virginia collaborating with other professionals first identified the link between the tick bites and an allergy to red meat in 2009 and established a conclusion to that end in 2011. They found that following a bite from the lone star tick, patients typically developed at least 20 times the number of antibodies to the alpha-gal sugar than are present in someone that has not experienced such a bite. This increase leads to the increased release of histamines responsible for typical allergic reactions.
After years of curiosity about the possibility of such a link, and having taken notice of a trend toward adults developing this type of allergy seemingly out of nowhere later in life, the team’s lead researcher delved in to trying to solve the mystery. Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills even when so far as to try out his theory on himself. After a tick-seeking mission wherein he apparently suffered several bits from lone star ticks, he himself suffered his predicted allergic reaction after consuming red meat, and a blood test confirmed what he had long suspected.
Some who fall victim to this allergy in this way report that they did not even realize that they had been bitten by a tick until the allergy was identified. The allergy can be associated with severe symptoms including respiratory distress, rashes, swelling, gastrointestinal difficulties and a drop in blood pressure. While the severity of symptoms may vary between patients, the necessity for a serious lifestyle change does not. Once the condition is identified doctors recommend that patients be extremely vigilant about exposure to red meat, as the allergic reaction can intensify with additional exposure. This means that patients must eliminate the steaks and burgers that so many love from their diets right away. Those who are affected most dramatically must also sometimes give up dairy products, avoid foods that may have come into contact with red meat during cooking and watch out for dishes flavored by red meat products as well.
Dr. Platts-Mills says that more time and testing will have to satisfy him and his research team that the relationship between the tick bites and the red meat allergy are more than just linked, but causal. While he would love to continue experimenting in the area, he cannot conduct research which would require subjects to undergo tick bites.
The lone star tick whose bite has been linked to the development of a red meat allergy has also been linked to the development of other serious conditions. These include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which presents with symptoms similar to Lyme Disease and ehrlichiosis, a series of bacterial illnesses.
By Michele Wessel