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Red meat allergy ticks on the move north

July 19, 2019 by Kimberly Drake

As we continue our battle against the infamous deer tick on the northern front, another enemy emerges from the south, and it wears a white dot on its back. According to several news sources, the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum), typically found in the southeastern and eastern part of the United States, was recently sighted in Eau Claire County. With fears of Lyme disease continually looming over our outdoor activities, it seems we now have yet another adversary crawling its way north, bringing with it an ability to cause a bizarre allergy to red meat. 

Who is this rogue tick?

According to the Department of Entomology, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, larva, nymph and adult lone star ticks are more active in their pursuit of a blood meal than other tick species. The females of the species are easy to recognize, as they have a distinctive white spot on their backs. 

Although primarily found in the southeastern United States, deer, birds and other wildlife can carry these ticks with them as they migrate, which could explain their presence in Wisconsin.

What they transmit

The UW-Madison says the lone star tick is the primary carrier of ehrlichiosis in humans and domestic dogs and is also implicated in the transmission of spotted fever group rickettsia.

It also is known to cause alpha-gal syndrome, which is an allergy to red meat. According to the Mayo Clinic, this phenomenon occurs when a lone star tick bite transmits a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into the body. For some people, this triggers an immune system response which later produces mild to severe allergic reactions when they eat red meat, including beef and pork. These reactions are often delayed as much as three to six hours after consuming the meat, making it challenging to pinpoint the cause. 

Symptoms of this tick-borne red meat allergy include hives, itchy or scaly skin, swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other body parts, wheezing or shortness of breath, a runny nose, sneezing, headaches, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting and in worse case scenarios, anaphylaxis, which is a severe, potentially deadly allergic reaction. The good news is the symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome may lessen or even disappear over time, so for some sufferers, it may just be a temporary condition that lasts one to two years.

In addition, people with alpha-gal or related antibodies can also become allergic to the cancer drug, cetuximab (Erbitux), and some individuals bitten by these rogue ticks will occasionally develop a circular rash and symptoms similar to that of early Lyme disease. 

What it doesn’t transmit

Thankfully, the lone star tick is not known to transmit Lyme disease. Interestingly, not only do they not transmit the disease, their saliva is very effective at killing the bacterium that causes it. 

According to a January 2018 review from the Entomological Society of America, published in Science Daily, “a chemical found in lone star tick saliva destroys Lyme bacteria, preventing lone stars from transmitting Borrelia burgdorferi. Lone star ticks are constantly being exposed to B. burgdorferi as they feed on infected animals, but the bacteria species has never been cultured from a lone star tick in a lab.”

Where is the enemy now?

Vague reports say the lone star tick is as far north as Eau Claire County, but according to UW-Madison records from 2006 to 2018, this invader has been identified in a total of 32 Wisconsin counties, from the Illinois border to as far north as Douglas County. Adult lone star ticks were spotted at one time or another in Vilas, Langlade and Price counties, with both adults and nymphs found in Marathon County.

Although this foreign vector is on the move north, their numbers aren’t large enough yet to initiate a full-blown panic. But with Lyme disease and other more common tick-borne illnesses our primary concern, focusing on tick bite prevention is a top priority no matter what species we face. 

So, when out and about enjoying outdoor activities, stay tick-wary, tuck your pant legs in your socks, get your tick repellent shields up and be on the lookout for a tiny eight-legged invader that wears a little white dot. 

Kimberly Drake can be reached at [email protected]


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