Typically what happens is a person who has been bitten has an allergic reaction 3 to 6 hours after eating red meat. The reaction can vary in severity, and can include developing hives, swelling and issues with breathing. With those who have a severe reaction, the person can even go into anaphylactic shock and their airway can close. Many people have trouble diagnosing why they are having the allergic reaction since most people won’t think the reaction is caused by eating red meat, since this is something they have done their entire life without any problems.
The allergy develops from the alpha-gal sugar, which the lone star tick injects into their victims when they are bitten. Researchers believe that when the alpha-gal sugar gets into the blood stream, the immune system flags it as an invader, and antibodies form to destroy it.
The reason people are getting allergies to red meat after being bitten is that beef, pork and venison all contain alpha-gal sugar in their meat. When people normally eat alpha-gal, the digestive system simply breaks it down as it would other sugars. Once it’s been flagged by the immune system, however, the body won’t ignore the alpha-gal in the meat being consumed, and the antibodies attack that as well. This is why the allergy reactions are occurring.
It’s not known at this time if the allergy to red meats is permanent, or whether it will lessen over time. There have been some cases where the allergy dissipates after a time for some, but no comprehensive study has been done to determine how likely or unlikely this is for those who develop the allergy.
If this was the only consequence of a lone star tick bite, vegetarians and animal rights activists might be encouraging more people to get bitten by the tick. Unfortunately, that’s not the only issue the lone star tick can cause. In addition, they can spread the bacterial infections ehrlichiosis and tularemia. Tularemia has the potential to be a deadly infection.
As with most insect-born diseases, the best way to prevent getting them is to not get bitten in the first place. Here are some tips on making it less likely to be bitten by the lone star tick:
- Stay out of areas with high grass and brush.
- Stay on trails when hiking.
- Use insect repellent when outside in areas where they are known to be.
- Cover up as much as possible with long sleeved shirts and long pants.
- Wear light colored clothes, making them easier to spot if they do land on you.
- Check yourself after being outside for ticks.
- Have someone else check you as well since it’s hard to see all parts of your body.
- Know the common places ticks go: under your arms, in and around your ears, inside and around your belly button, behind your knees, between your legs, around your waist and anyplace where you have hair.
- Shower immediately after being in tick territory.
- Remove ticks immediately if you do find one.
- Keep the tick, once removed, to have it tested for disease.
- Watch the spot for redness, which can indicate you were infected by the tick.
(Image courtesy of the CDC)