Imagine you suddenly became allergic to red meat. Within hours of eating at your favorite burger joint, you’re breaking out in hives, vomiting, and totally confused. That’s essentially what happened to Thomas Platt-Mills in 2002. What is ironic is that he was studying why people allergic to meat were having negative reactions to the cancer drug cetuximab. He thought maybe some kind of parasite or fungal infection was the reason. Then, Platt-Mills as bitten by a Lone Star tick and himself developed an allergy to meat. He was able to link the tick and allergy together.
How the allergy works
The red-meat allergy is officially known as an alpha-gal allergy. Alpha-gal is the name of the carbohydrate that the body reacts to. Let’s say you’re going for a walk in the woods, and a Lone Star tick attaches itself to you. It has already fed off a deer, which carries alpha-gal. All mammals (except humans, apes, and Old World monkeys) produce alpha-gal naturally, so the tick might have just fed off a mouse or other rodent. The tick transfers the alpha-gal to you through your bloodstream, alerting your immune system. The body then produces antibodies to attack the alpha-gal. When you eat red meat, your body responds to the presence of alpha-gal again. You are now officially allergic.
People often don’t realize they are allergic to red meat, because it can take a few hours before their body reacts. The alpha-gal has to get through your gastrointestinal tract, and then symptoms hit. These include hives, diarrhea, cramping, shortness of breath, and even anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening. In rare cases, people have been hospitalized.
What does the Lone Star tick look like?
Active between April and late August, the female Lone Star tick can be identified by the white dot in the center of its brown body, which gives the tick its name. The male tick doesn’t have that dot, but it has several spots or white streaks around its reddish-brown body. They are both between 2-5 millimeters in size. The Lone Star tick likes to hide in high grass or thick bushes in areas with lots of white-tailed deer.
The allergy spreads
The Lone Star tick lives primarily in the Southeast of the US, and like most ticks, it bites its host unnoticed. It can hang on for as long as one week, infecting the host with the alpha-gal (red meat) allergy. Since Platt-Mills made the connection back in 2002, the tick and allergy have spread. There have been cases in the northern United States as far as New York, Minnesota, and Maine. The reason could be the population of deer, who can harbor as many as 500 Lone Star ticks at one time.
What can you do?
If you are unlucky enough to become allergic to alpha-gal, you will have to stop eating red meat. Some people also become allergic to high-fat dairy, which includes ice cream. You can still eat chicken and fish, so converting to vegetarianism isn’t necessary. There are even cases where the allergy eventually goes away if the person isn’t bitten by an infected tick again. The typical recovery length is between eight months and five years, though there hasn’t been enough research to say for sure, or why some people never recover.
To avoid getting infected in the first place, be very careful about where you hike. Stick to marked trails and avoid woody or grassy areas. Use a good tick repellent and always check for ticks after outdoor time. Shower within two hours of coming indoors and perform a body check.
Small bugs can have big impacts on human health. A small insect might have been responsible for infecting Darwin with the disease that ultimately killed him.