It’s time for another Tick Talk
Red Meat Allergy
A friend occasionally shares a story about a couple she knows who are avid hikers. I always enjoy the tale. Beverly has a knack for storytelling with her pitch-perfect timing, gestures and accentuation.
This particular couple would return from a hike and hang out with their fellow campers around the campfire. Their adoration for each other was obvious, and there would invariably come a time in the evening when they would head to their tent, telling the others that they would be checking each other for ticks.
The couple often put on Brad Paisley’s tune, “I’d like to check you for ticks.” And, as Beverly says, judging from the sounds issuing from their tent, it “apparently led to finding more than just ticks.”
I’m sure the double-entendre didn’t escape the attention of astute Time’s readers. But if it did, ask your adult children to explain it to you.
If you like to eat red meat, you may be ticked off by the remainder of this article.
The gist of Beverly’s story, as it relates to this article, is about the need to check for ticks. Please make a habit of examining yourself or have someone else check you for all species of these little vectors of multiple pathogens anytime you return from working or playing outdoors.
A recent column in The Pocahontas Times warned that the range and growing virulence of toxic plants and fungi, such as poison ivy and the “Death Cap” mushroom, are aggressively expanding into new areas.
Climate change will affect the distribution and sometimes pose an existential crisis for many life forms. Vectors of multiple pathogens such as ticks are no exception, and you may have noticed that tick infestation is no longer a single-season threat – we now find them on our dogs and climbing up our pant legs throughout the year.
We are seeing an emerging health crisis from the Lone Star tick, known primarily for other serious diseases such as tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The most recent threat from this tick is a dangerous condition called Alpha Gal Syndrome (AGS), or, as it’s better known by the general public, red meat allergy.
Red meat allergy is not the condition known as meat intolerance, a digestive problem. Instead, this allergy affects our immune system and can result in a chronic condition that can cause a rash and, in more severe cases, anaphylaxis and death.
Moreover, this condition is brought on by eating any non-primate red meat and sometimes extends to dairy products and mammal products such as gelatin. You can eat meat for many years with no problems and then suddenly, after being infected, go to your favorite steakhouse and have an allergic reaction anywhere from three to six hours later.
And with the wide availability of delicious free range beef and lamb in Pocahontas County, we do not want to get this dreadful disease.
(Humans are primates, so practicing cannibals and vampires need not take heed.)
If this happens to you, it may mean that you have alpha-gal syndrome, and it is likely you got it from the lone star tick. This tick, like all ticks, climbs up plants, where they extend their front legs in a grasping manner called “questing.” From this vantage point, they wait for their blood host to pass by and literally “set their hooks” into their next meal.
The tick has various acute sensing abilities, including radiant heat, carbon dioxide, breath and vibrations, sometimes from several yards away. And though we humans are not at the top of their menu priority due to our opposable thumbs adept at removing ticks, they will attach to us if the opportunity presents itself.
Once the tick crawls around on us until it finds a suitable feeding location, often undetected, it prepares for a blood meal at our expense. Using its sharp claws to tear through the skin, the tick inserts its proboscis into the flesh. To avoid detection, the ravenous tick anesthetizes the bite area by literally spitting desensitizing compounds into the host.
The feeding tube, manufactured and cemented into place by the tick, is barbed and very difficult to pull out. Once the tick commences feeding on the host’s blood, it may stay on the body for up to seven days before fully engorged, at which time it drops off.
Medical researchers still do not yet fully understand the mechanism of how a bite from an infected tick causes a devastating red meat allergy. However, researchers believe that the alpha-gal sugar molecules enter the host’s body by the release of the tick’s saliva when it pulls out and falls off. When this happens, there is a veritable histamine storm, causing allergic and anaphylactic reactions.
According to the CDC, the delayed symptoms of AGS include:
• Hives or itchy rash.
• Nausea or vomiting.
• Heartburn or indigestion.
• Cough, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing.
• Drop in blood pressure.
• Swelling of the lips, throat, tongue or eyelids.
• Dizziness or faintness.
In the world of food allergies, sugar is an unusual instigator of an allergic r- eaction. Certain proteins usually cause such reactions. And, because there is a lapse of time between eating red meat of up to six hours, many infected humans do not associate the meal with the symptoms, let alone, a tick bite.
There are a few fortunate people who contract AGS, and their symptoms lessen after a couple of years. Among these people, there is another minority of patients whose symptoms continue to diminish. But only if you do not get bitten by an infected tick again.
If you get alpha-gal syndrome, there is no current treatment or cure. Furthermore, you will never again eat lamb, pork, beef, or products made with them. There are presently more than 450,000 cases of AGA in the United States, and that number is expected to grow. Consider that for a moment!
There is a blood test for AGS, so if you suspect you may have been infected, get yourself to a doctor, but with one proviso. Keeping in mind that there is much more research needed and that the allergy was only recently recognized as a tick-borne disease, less than half of the doctors polled in the lone star tick’s range had heard of alpha-gal syndrome.
You may have to take the lead and mention this emerging disease to your doctor. I am confident that our exemplary physicians here in Pocahontas County are aware of red meat allergy.
Now, readers, you are armed with the facts about a red meat allergy caused by the lone star tick. So, if you start to salivate at the thought of a sizzling porterhouse steak or a tender lamb chop, remember that the threat of losing that pleasure, or even dying, is in the saliva of a tiny arachnid that just might be climbing up your leg at this very moment.
Author’s Note: How the lone star tick got its name is worthy of a short discussion. This species of tick is indeed found in eastern Texas, which, as we all know, is called the Lone Star State. Its range, the tick that is, extends through much of the Midwest, South, and Mid-Atlantic, yet those Texans felt it necessary to name it after their own state.
OK, we can live with that, but they felt further privileged to name the tick because of a spot found on the female’s back. In the imaginative minds of Texans, this amorphous spot resembles a star, which, in reality, it does not. Clearly, Texans do not hold geometry or astronomy in high esteem.
Because “everything is bigger in Texas,” one might expect a claim that the Texas lone star tick is the size of a box turtle. If this happens, I say we build a wall around the Lone Star State to contain their outrageous fabrications.
Note: No Texans were harmed in writing this article, and, certain women in Austin are exempt from my diatribe.
Citations available upon request.
Until next time,