- Lone Star ticks spread an allergy to red meat and products derived from animals.
- People who develop this allergy may also become more likely to develop heart disease, according to a new study.
- Though these ticks have commonly been found in the Southeast, they are spreading north and west as climate gets warmer.
The allergy that people can develop after being bitten by Lone Star ticks already sounded bad enough.
These ticks can spread an allergy to a sugar compound called alpha-galactose, often referred to as an alpha-gal allergy. Because this compound is found in mammal meat, people often refer to this as a red meat allergy. Some people with this allergy also react to other products from mammals – including dairy, animal byproducts that appear in gel-cap pills, and medications containing antibodies derived from animals.
Now a recent study from researchers at the University of Virginia found that people who developed this allergy have a higher risk for heart disease.
These are still preliminary findings, but they imply the possibility that negative health effects spread by these ticks may be even more widespread than previously thought.
A hidden heart risk
It’s important to understand one of the puzzling aspects of this red meat allergy in order to understand why the findings of the new study will be so important to follow up on.
In a normal allergy, if someone’s body is sensitized to a substance, they’ll react to it. This is the case for a number of people with alpha-gal allergies – if they eat a burger or anything else with alpha-gal in it, they’ll later have a severe reaction, including potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock. But a number of people who are sensitized to alpha-gal don’t have allergic symptoms.
No one understands why. (We’ll return to why this is so significant.)
For the new study, researchers examined the heart health of 118 patients – not a big number for a study like this, which is one of the reasons more research on the topic is needed.
About 26% of the group was sensitive to alpha-gal. These patients had an average of about 30% more plaque built up around their hearts, which can narrow arteries and lead to a heart attack or stroke. The plaque in these patients was also more likely to be formed in a way that can increase heart disease risk, according to the study.
This means that being sensitive to alpha-gal might indicate a person is significantly more likely to develop heart disease, even if they don’t have allergic reactions after eating meat.
This is significant because a lot more people may be sensitive to alpha-gal than are aware of it. Around 20% of people in Central Virginia and the Southeast may have some alpha-gal sensitivity without showing signs of the meat allergy, according to a UVA news release.
In other words, even the people who escape the meat allergy symptoms might be more likely to suffer from heart disease. This may be because they continue to eat meat thinking there’s no reason to avoid it, but that alpha-gal sensitivity in their bodies makes them react more poorly to it. More research is needed to know for sure.
But either way, this is more indication that tick bites are even more harmful than most people think.
- Lone Star ticks can spread a disturbing allergy to mammal products with their bites.
- Getty Images
- Tick-borne disease rates are skyrocketing around the US, according to a recent CDC report.
- That report didn’t include rates of the allergy to red meat and mammal products that’s spread by bites from Lone Star ticks, but there are reasons to think that condition is on the rise as well.
- It’s a disturbing allergy that can cause a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.
There are a lot of disturbing things about the allergy to red meat and other mammal products spread by bites from the Lone Star tick.
There’s the allergy itself, which has often been described as a red meat allergy, but really can be an allergy to mammal products – including dairy products or potentially even animal byproducts that appear in gel-cap pills and medications with antibodies derived from animals. There’s the new discovery that the allergy seems to be linked to a higher risk of heart disease, according to a recent study.
There’s the fact that the allergy can be severe enough to trigger an anaphylactic reaction, which can be life threatening and requires the use of an Epi-Pen.
And there’s the timing of the allergic reaction. With most food allergies, it takes only 15 or 20 minutes after exposure for severe reactions to occur. Not with this one.
“The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions,” Dr. Ronald Saff, an allergist in Tallahassee, Florida, and an assistant clinical professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.
“They’re sleeping, and they have no idea what they could be allergic to because the symptoms occurred so many hours after going to bed,” Saff said.
But perhaps most disturbing is that we don’t know how common this allergy is, but we have good reason to think it’s spreading.
The alpha-galactose (or alpha-gal) allergy is still new enough that it’s not counted by the CDC on its lists of tick-borne diseases. But we do know that tick-carried disease rates are skyrocketing in the US, as a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report revealed.
Ticks are spreading to new areas, enabled in some cases by warmer weather that expands their habitats and extends tick season longer into the fall, according to CDC officials. Tick diseases are also are spreading rapidly, according to that recent report, because ticks are much harder to control and kill than other blood-sucking pests.
The same things are true about the ticks that spread these allergies.
- It’s possible the Lone Star tick has expanded beyond these regions, this CDC map was last revised in 2011.
“Quite aggressive” biters
The Lone Star tick that spreads this allergy is named for the shape of the white splotch on the back of adult females. Lone Star ticks at all stages of life bite humans – even the tick’s larvae, unlike with all other American ticks – and can be “quite aggressive,” according to the CDC. The tick also feeds on and may catch a ride on cats and dogs.
The Lone Star tick is most common in the Southeast, but in recent years it has spread up the East Coast and into the Midwest, with large numbers reported all the way up in Maine. Within the last two years, outbreaks of alpha-gal allergy have occurred in Minnesota, New Hampshire, and on the tip of Long Island.
Much about the Lone Star tick and alpha-gal is a mystery. We know something in the tick’s bite causes changes in people that make them sensitive to a sugar compound (alpha-galactose) that exists in mammal products. Certain people develop more sensitivity than others, and a few can tolerate small amounts of meat, but some become so allergic that they can’t even consume animal products like dairy milk.
No one knows for sure whether the allergy goes away with time, but scientists think that both additional tick bites and meat consumption might worsen the condition.
The distribution, range, and abundance of Lone Star ticks have all increased over the past 20 to 30 years, according to the CDC. And warmer summers could make that situation even worse.
“We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they’re already causing,” Saff said.