Lyme Disease isn’t the only tick-borne disease you should worry about catching this summer. The lone star tick—named after the Texas-shaped white splotch on its back—has been linked to severe allergic reactions to red meat and scientists are worried it’s spreading throughout the United States, according to a report from Wired.
In the last 15 years, researchers started noticing cases of red-meat allergies growing in the southeastern United States, with people reporting symptoms as mild as hives and swelling to as serious as anaphylaxis in some patients. It’s believed that something in the saliva of the lone star tick is triggering an allergy to the sugar molecule galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose—known as alpha-gal for short—that is found in red meat.
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While immunologist Thomas Platts-Mills from the University of Virginia started hearing about these strange allergic reactions to meat back in the ’90s, he didn’t discover the link to the lone star tick until 2004 after patients from the southeast were 10 times more likely to report allergic side effects in a trial for the new cancer drug cetuximab, which just so happens to contain alpha-gal, the sugar molecule in red meat.
When he compared the blood samples from the patients who reported allergic reactions to the drug, Platts-Mills discovered that they all had pre-existing antibodies to alpha-gal. Eventually Platts-Mill realized that there was a geographic overlap to those with allergies to cetuximab and red meat and patients with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is caused by the lone star tick.
Upon further research, Platts-Mill and his team found that 80 percent of patients with these allergies had also been bitten by a tick and that tick bites caused a 20-fold increase in alpha-gal antibodies.
Unlike other allergies which only affect certain genes, it appears anyone is susceptible to this tick-based meat allergy.
“There’s something really special about this tick,” Jeff Wilson, an asthma, allergy, and immunology fellow in Platts-Mills’ group, told Wired. “Just a few bites and you can render anyone really, really allergic.”
Even worse? New outbreaks of this strange allergy have been detected recently as far north as Duluth, Minnesota and as far east as Hanover, New Hampshire and Long Island. Wilson and his fellow researchers are scrambling to figure out if the cause is due to the spread of the lone star tick into new territories or if an entirely different species of tick is also causing this allergy.
Since they haven’t found a cure for this tick-based allergy, you’ll want to check yourself extensively for ticks this summer otherwise your hamburger habit (and your life) could be seriously at risk.