In cultures around the world, sitting down for dinner—sometimes en masse—is a staple for dietary practice, playing a significant role in the community and interpersonal relationships. Often, these meals include some form of meat, specifically beef and pork. In fact, we as Americans average consume about 270 pounds of meat per person, every year—more than basically every country on Earth. Now, what would happen if after eating meat your whole life, your body all of a sudden started to reject a burger? Or a piece of bacon?

Kansas City mom Sharon Fletcher was traveling with her daughter and her son-in-law. She had recently eaten a hamburger a couple of hours outside her hometown when soon after she started feeling violently ill. She recounted that her hands and feet started itching and her throat was closing. What is happening?, she no doubt thought. Fletcher had surely eaten hamburgers before, and food poisoning wasn’t this severe and that quick.

The culprit was a lone star tick.

What Happened?

It has been discovered that that the lone star tick can completely reprogram your immune system to become allergic to certain meats after biting you.

According to Fletcher, a doctor told her that just a few more minutes of not receiving treatment would have caused “a total shut down” of her immune system—a potentially fatal occurrence. 

When you get bitten by a lone star tick, whose scientific name is Amblyomma americanum, there’s a possibility you may become allergic to a sugar called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, also known as alpha-gal.

This is what happened to Fletcher. Alpha-gal is found in bulk in basically all mammals. That naturally includes species like cows and pork, but is found more specifically in deer, buffalo, and bison. Humans (and primates) don’t produce alpha-gal, which is why our body creates antibodies to combat alpha-gal when it enters our system at large quantities.

After you develop the allergy, you may have to completely stop eating red meat and pork altogether. You may have to also suspend eating any sort of food with pork or beef elements in it, such as stock, gelatin, marshmallows, and potato chips.

How Was The Allergy Found?

This meat allergy was first discovered in Australia in the 2000s. But doctors dove deeper into the problem, finding the link between the tick and the allergy, while researching the effectiveness for a cancer drug called cetuximab.

During the study led by Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, doctors found that as quickly as 20 minutes of patients taking the drug, some would experience violent reactions like headaches, fevers, and vomiting. Some reactions eventually proved to be fatal. They later found some patients were allergic to the alpha-gal that was in the cetuximab.

Once the doctors looked into the problem further, they realized patients also reported that they began feeling similar side effects after eating beef and pork. They also found that most of the patients reporting issues came from the southeastern part of the United States.

Platts-Mills and his team were tipped off by one of the patients who remembered getting bit by a tick a couple months previous. Once they asked other patients if they experienced the same issue, most of them had been bitten. Doctors then discovered, with help from the Center of Disease Control, that the lone star tick overlapped almost perfectly with the region where most of the patients were experiencing symptoms.

What Are The Symptoms Of A Lone Star Tick Bite?

According to the Platts-Mills study between lone star ticks’ relationship with meat allergies, the symptoms of the new allergy can start showing up around three to five hours after you consume meat. “There’s a time delay in the reaction,” said Cosby Stone, an immunology fellow at Vanderbilt University. “[The alpha-gal] has to first travel through your gastrointestinal tract to be released.”

Some patients who are bitten by lone star ticks report having itchiness in the area of the bite for up to two weeks. It can also take months for the symptoms to start showing themselves. If you develop an allergy to alpha-gal because of the tick, you have what doctors call “alpha-gal allergy syndrome.” It’s classified as a syndrome because it’s a disorder and something that your body doesn’t do naturally.

Signs of alpha-gal allergy syndrome range from very mild to extremely severe, where patients sometimes may have to be placed on life support because their blood pressure is so low. These symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Hives or skin rashes
  • Asthma

One of the more severe symptoms of a lone star tick bite is anaphylaxis, which is a reaction that can cause your throat to close in addition to other reactions like hives and nausea. You are more likely to experience anaphylaxis if you have asthma or have a history of anaphylaxis in your family.

Anaphylaxis is most likely the cause of Sharon Fletcher’s reaction mentioned earlier. Her throat was closing, and she was itchy all over. Luckily, she got it taken care of pretty quickly once she got the hospital.

What Is The Lone Star Tick?

Lone star ticks get their name from their appearance, as many pests do. In their adult form, they have eight legs that are just barely visible to the naked eye. The female lone star ticks feature a blotch of white on their brown shields that is often similar in shape to a lone star. Conversely, male feature white streaks or spots on their back. At their biggest, the ticks are about one-tenth to one-quarter of an inch long.

Primarily, the lone star tick is found in the southeast United States and Mexico, but there have been sightings of the tick as far northwest as Minnesota and as far northeast as Long Island. “They like nice warm environments,” said Ronald Saff, a Floridian allergist. “As the U.S. gets warmer, we anticipate that the tick will migrate to other states.”

The tick preys on a wide range of lifeforms—as long as it has blood, the tick will seek to attach to it. Some species, aside from humans, that lone star ticks feed off include:

  • Dogs
  • Birds
  • Deer
  • Cats
  • Racoons
  • Rodents

A major issue with these ticks is that they can lay up to 5,000 eggs. Naturally, not all of them will survive, but the rate at which these ticks reproduce makes them especially dangerous.

Females lay their eggs in a moist underground location, such as a pile of leaves or mulch. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae then search for hosts (usually anything but humans in this stage) to feed off of before burying themselves underground until they develop into nymphs—the stage between larvae and adults. Once in the nymph stage, the ticks once again find hosts to suck blood from before once again burying themselves until they morph into adults.

This whole process can take up to three years, with ticks burying themselves beneath the surface for months on end before resurfacing and trying to find a host. The ticks, in any stage, are most active in the summer. A tick won’t survive in any stage of its life without attaching itself to a host and feeding off blood.

In terms of spreading disease, ticks do the most damage in their adult stage. In addition to humans, ticks can causes illness in dogs, cats, and horses if left untreated.

Is There A Cure?

Here’s the big problem with the lone star tick: while scientists are very aware of the connections between the lone star tick and allergies, they aren’t exactly sure how the tick causes these reactions. This is partially due to how recently the relationship between the ticks and allergies was found. There isn’t a vaccine for the allergy, either.

There is ongoing research, though. A team in North Carolina is currently infecting laboratory mice with different components of lone star tick saliva and excrement to see what exactly it is that causes the alpha-gal allergy. The researchers are working to boil down to the specific molecule what it is that the ticks transfer from them to us that causes the reactions.

Other Issues With Lone Star Ticks

Lone star ticks don’t only have the potential to completely rearrange your immune system, they also carry a host of serious diseases. Some of the more severe maladies that can come from a lone star tick bite include:

  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever: According to the Mayo Clinic, these symptoms grow more severe with time. They may not start to take effect for a couple weeks, either. After a couple days of a fever, headaches, and chills, you can eventually develop rashes on your legs, feet, arms, and hands. In its most severe cases, Rocky Mountain spotted fever can cause kidney disease and internal organ damage.
  • HME: Known as human monocytotropic ehrlichiosis in the scientific world, we’ll leave it at HME for short. Similar to Rocky Mountain fever, HME can take a couple weeks to start setting in. Once it does, however, you develop chills, muscle aches, fatigue, and a high fever. It also causes a reduced white and red blood cell count level, which affects your immune system. The disease can also attack the brain and your body’s neurological functions and can cause respiratory failure.
  • Tularemia: Symptoms for tularemia usually occur a bit quicker than the other two diseases (within a week). While many of the symptoms are similar, what sets tularemia apart from the others is it can cause ulcers at the site of the bite, in your eye lids, and in your mouth.

With proper care, these can all be treated. The ticks don’t usually spread these diseases until they’re adults, too, so they are relatively noticeable by the time they can harm you.

Prevention

Tick prevention—especially lone star tick prevention—is difficult. The most obvious preventative measure is if you see one on you, someone else, or a pet, pick it off your skin with tweezers.

The CDC suggests that, in order to avoid tick bites, you should stay away from “wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.” If you must encounter these areas make sure you wear proper, thick footwear in addition to gloves when reaching into the shrubbery. There are also tick repellents for your skins and clothes.

If you do find a tick on you, there’s a decent chance it’s not the only one. Once you discover one, make sure to shower soon afterwards, as you can easily find more underneath your clothes. After that, check all the clothing you wore, including your shoes, to make sure that there are no remaining ticks.