Most of us are familiar with the risk of contracting Lyme disease after being bitten by a tick. Roughly 300,000 Americans develop Lyme disease each year and may experience symptoms such as fatigue and muscle aches. But now, a previously rare type of tick-induced illness is becoming increasingly common—and its symptoms are putting summer barbeque menus at risk.
The bite of a lone star tick might put you at risk for developing alpha-gal syndrome, an allergy to a sugar compound called galactose-alpha-1-3 galactose, most often referred to as alpha-gal.
Alpha-gal is a sugar made by mammals that attaches to protein and is found in red meats such as beef, pork, and lamb.
Almost all mammals produce alpha-gal, with the exception of primates and humans. This makes alpha-gal an unfamiliar compound to our bodies, and for reasons that are still unclear, one that the bite of a lone star tick may provoke an intense allergic reaction to.
One theory is that lone star ticks pick up alpha-gal when biting a deer, and pass it along in their saliva when they bite a human. The human immune system may perceive this as a threat and start attacking alpha-gal anytime it enters the body.
Red meat isn’t the only possible allergen for those who develop alpha-gal syndrome. Dairy products and other animal products like gelatin may provoke an allergic reaction for some. Those with alpha-gal syndromes should read labels carefully, as many vitamins, medicines, and household products can also contain animal substances that may have alpha-gal.
After eating products containing alpha-gal, individuals may experience symptoms such as itchiness and hives, stomach pain and indigestion, or shortness of breath and anaphylactic shock. Those who suffer from alpha-gal syndrome should also be sure to obtain a prescription for and carry an epinephrine pen with them in case of severe reactions.
The allergy is unique in that the reaction usually doesn’t occur for three to six hours after ingesting the allergen. With most food allergies, such as tree nut allergies, the symptoms begin within minutes. But with alpha-gal syndrome, you might eat a steak for dinner and not experience a reaction until the middle of the night.
Some people may experience a decrease in symptoms after avoiding alpha-gal for an extended period of time and might be able to reintroduce some foods into their diet. However, another tick bite can erase that progress and make the condition worse, so alpha-gal syndrome sufferers must be extra careful to avoid further bites.
Lone star ticks are native to the southeast US, but in recent years they’ve been marching northward and westward, expanding as far West as Texas and as far North as Canada. The states they are most likely to be found in are Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Climate change is causing tick populations to swell, and with that comes more cases of alpha-gal syndrome.
So, what can you do to keep burgers and bacon in your life? Experts recommend loading up on the bug spray if you’re going to be outside in areas where the lone star tick is common. DEET repellent can be sprayed on shoes and pants to make clothing tick-resistant. Check yourself for ticks immediately when you get inside, and if you find one, pull it off with a pair of tweezers.
Lone star ticks are bigger than the blacklegged ticks that cause Lyme disease. Their bites hurt more, so you may be able to notice immediately if you’ve been bitten by a lone star tick.
Unfortunately, once you’ve been bitten, there are no prevention methods you can take against alpha-gal syndrome, and you may start experiencing symptoms within days. But the good news is that not everyone who gets bitten by a lone star tick will develop alpha-gal syndrome. In fact, most people won’t.
If you do begin to experience symptoms, don’t panic. Get tested by a doctor to confirm the diagnosis and get a prescription for epinephrine. Non-mammal animal products are safe to eat, so you can still eat as much poultry, eggs, and fish as you’d like. Turkey burgers will make do for your summer cookout—right?
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