Have you had any strange reactions to food products (like red meat or milk) recently? You may have developed new allergies to a certain type of sugar — and a creature called the lone star tick may be to blame.
The potentially life-threatening allergic reaction is called alpha-gal syndrome, or AGS. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says AGS can be triggered by a bite from a lone star tick, which are present in most areas of the U.S., though are less common up north and out west.
Animals like cows, deer, and lamb have AGS blood sugar, and the tick spreads it from animal to human.
Alpha-gal is a sugar molecule that’s found in most mammals and can also be found in their meat. Alpha-gal is found in pork, beef, lamb and venison. Allergic reactions include hives and rash, diarrhea, nausea, shortness of breath, low blood pressure, and swelling of the lips, throat, tongue and eyelids.
“It is one of those stranger-than-fiction kinda medical stories,” said Dr. Cosby Stone Jr., assistant professor of Vanderbilt Allergy and Immunology in Nashville, Tennesse. Stone and a research team have studied these unusual tick bites in children.
Stone says the molecule can be found in the ticks’ saliva, which is injected into the skin after a bite — triggering an allergic response in some people.
“I don’t like conspiracy theories,” said Stone. “But this is like the time when the conspiracy theory came true. And the tick bite turns you into someone that’s allergic to the food.”
AGS can be hard to spot. The symptoms often show up hours after eating red meat and the stomach pain often leads to a misdiagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Out of the 200 children Vanderbilt studied, 8% saw symptom relief by staying away from red meat.
Previous research indicates treatment can include taking antihistamines and adjusting diets to avoid mammalian products. Over time and with physicians’ advice, people can re-introduce meats and mammal products back into diets.
Ticks are often found where deer rest or graze. It’s suggested to avoid those areas and do your best to keep deer out of your yard. Garlic and onions are two natural ways to scare them off.
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station has a few ways to spot lone star ticks:
- Females have an obvious whitish dot on their backs
- Males don’t have the dot but have whitish markings at the edges of their bodies
- Nymphs (young) lone star ticks are more circular than adults, which are more egg-shaped. They’re also smaller than adults
CAES says the adult ticks are more active in spring and early summer, while nymphs are most active from April through summer. All lone star ticks are active in summer months. Both the CDC and other researchers warn lone star ticks are likely not the only ticks causing the spread of AGS.
“Alpha-gal allergies sort of broke all of our conventional rules as to what allergy is supposed to look like,” Stone said. “When you have a child that every now and again they are clutching their stomach, they’re throwing up and having diarrhea, and it happens regularly, that’s miserable for everybody.”