Time for our annual chat about preventing tick bites
Lone star ticks are about the size of a lentil and are dark reddish-brown in color. Adults have 8 legs. 🕷️ The females have a characteristic white spot in the middle of their backs. And some people develop a severe, lifelong allergy to red meat after one bites them. It’s called alpha-gal syndrome (or AGS), and it was just discovered in 2009.
We’d all rather pretend these pesky little arachnids don’t exist. Unfortunately, pretending isn’t good prevention. And tick-borne illness is preventable! Get out the DEET and tuck your pant legs into your socks because it’s tick talk time. 🧦
Alpha gal syndrome is not an infection, but you can get it from a tick bite. It’s an allergy to a sugar molecule (alpha galactose) found in red meat, including meat from pigs, cows, rabbits, deer, bison, and sheep. Milk and milk products also contain alpha-gal sugars. The allergy develops following a lone star tick bite.
Lone star ticks are most often found in the southeastern, eastern, and midwestern United States. However, its range is expanding due to climate change, and they have been spotted as far north as the southern coast of Maine, southern Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
It’s thought that the tick’s bite introduces the alpha-gal sugar molecule into the victim’s body, which triggers a lifelong severe allergy. Exactly how this works is not well understood. No one knows why some people develop alpha-gal syndrome after a tick bite while others do not. Scientists are not even sure how common alpha-gal syndrome is or how often a lone star tick bite goes on to become alpha-gal syndrome.
What is clear is that the tick bite (in some cases) causes an allergy to red meat. There are no outward symptoms of the tick bite that would suggest you’re going to be the unlucky one who develops alpha-gal syndrome. It’s just like all tick bites–horrifying.
If you do develop alpha-gal syndrome, consuming red meat or any food with a meat product in it triggers an allergic reaction. Allergy symptoms can include hives; itching; eczema; swelling of the lips, face, tongue, and throat; wheezing; stomach upset; headaches; and anaphylaxis. Most food allergies happen almost immediately after exposure, but with alpha-gal syndrome, the allergic response to the problematic food takes between 2-6 hours to manifest. No one seems to know why. There is a lot still to be learned about this condition.
The allergic reaction is life-threatening. Anyone having an allergic reaction involving difficulty breathing or swelling of the face should seek immediate medical attention.
People with frequent, unexplained severe allergic reactions but who test negative for other food allergies could have alpha-gal syndrome. The only treatment is to completely avoid milk, mammal meat, and anything containing mammal by-products–forever. Poultry (like chicken), fish, and eggs do not contain alpha-gal sugars and are safe for people with AGS to eat.
To prevent alpha-gal syndrome, prevent tick bites.
Ticks live in tall grass and brush and like to grab onto a passing victim as we walk by. Then they crawl around looking for an opportune place to bite your bare skin.
Whenever you are walking in the woods or tall grass, wear long pants tucked into your socks. Pre-treat your clothing and shoes with 0.5% permethrin, a long-lasting and effective insect repellent. Nerdy note: permethrin breaks down in sunlight–so if you’re backpacking and you hang your treated clothes out to dry, hang them in the shade.
You can also use a topical insect repellent containing at least 20% DEET. If you don’t want to use DEET, effective alternatives are picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone. Prevent ticks on your pets by using a long-acting flea and tick preventative such as Frontline.
Finally, after spending time in any tick habitat, do a careful check for ticks on your skin and your kids’ skin too. It is especially important to check the scalp, underarms, groin, and ankles.
If you do find a tick and it is embedded in your skin, use a pair of tweezers to grasp it as close to the skin as you can and slowly pull it away from the skin. Don’t jerk, twist, or burn it–or do anything else that will cause further injury to your skin.
Alpha-gal syndrome is rare, but tick bites are extremely common. Ticks also carry infectious diseases like Lyme, rocky mountain spotted fever, tularemia, and a long list of others. Practice good tick prevention out there, folks!
Stay safe, stay well.