Like Red Meat? Avoid Ticks. Like Ticks? Avoid Red Meat.
Apparently, it’s a particularly bad year for ticks (though when it is ever a good year. unless you ask the ticks?). If you thought the long, brutal winter would kill off some of our favorite biting bugs, you were mistaken. Ticks hang out deep in the soil during the winter, oblivious to the suffering of the rest of us. And while they’re down there, they breed. Given that winter lasted forever this year, that means we’ll have even more ticks now that it’s warmed up. Good times! Aside from Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, it turns out that ticks carry other diseases, including one that renders its victims deathly allergic to red meat.
The Lone Star tick doesn’t carry Lyme Disease — in fact, according to the CDC, their saliva kills Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease. Instead, these ticks, which are common in wooded areas of the East, Southeast, and South Central parts of the U.S., cause southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). In addition to a rash, STARI can cause fever, headache, fatigue, and muscle pain, as well as a lethal meat allergy.
According to Vanderbilt University’s Asthma, Sinus, and Allergy Program, patients who demonstrated allergies to red meat — specifically, the alpha-gal sugar in meat — are coming in regularly. The doctors aren’t exactly sure how the tick causes the allergy, but they think the tick contains some alpha-gal sugar in its digestive system, and when it bites people, it releases that sugar, which causes some people — a minority of those bitten by the tick — to become allergic to it. Those unfortunate enough to have this reaction could experience anaphylaxis, hives, and swelling four to six hours after consuming the red meat, even weeks or months after having been bitten. Chicken and turkey are safe, but consuming beef, pork, and venison could trigger the reaction. In some patients, even drinking milk caused the allergic reaction.
A number of close calls have been reported from people who experienced the effects and had no clue what caused them. A blood test can verify the cause of the symptoms, but doctors don’t know of any way to mitigate the effects in people who have been bitten and become allergic to meat. In fact, people with the allergy may have to avoid meat for life. Lone Star ticks are particularly aggressive — even the larvae bite humans, which no other tick larvae does, but DEET and the usual insect repellents should work. Still, better bring an Epi-Pen to the barbeque, or behold the power of vegetarianism!