Picture this: You’re sitting down for an al fresco summer dinner — pork chops, yum! You take your first bite, marveling at how perfectly cooked they are. The dinner is delicious, and the company is even better. After you eat, you settle on the couch to Netflix and chill. Life is good … that is, until you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, your body covered in a patchy rash, violently ill from dinner. Is it food poisoning? you ask yourself as you gulp down water to rehydrate. Maybe, but your partner’s not sick... and what are these hives?! And why does it feel like your skin is on fire? Believe it or not, a pesky woodland pest — the lone star tick — might be to blame. One bite from the lone star tick has been shown to make humans violently allergic to beef, bacon, and all kinds of red meats in between. It’s the most recent tick-borne illness to sweep the U.S., and the news is extra unpleasant for folks living in the Southeastern part of the country. But there’s hope: Because it’s carried by a tick, there are ways to limit your likelihood of contracting the virus. Here’s how to avoid the lone star tick.
It sounds like the plotline of a summer blockbuster thriller, but according to WIRED, it’s actually just the most recent tick illness to come onto the radar of doctors and scientists. If you’re asking yourself if this is worse than Lyme disease, the answer is yes, unequivocally. Any virus that keeps you from eating cheeseburgers is worse than Lyme disease in my book. Imagine if you woke up one day suddenly unable to enjoy — nay, just eat — even the tiniest amount of meat without becoming violently ill. One bite from the insect immunologists are calling the lone star tick, and this might just become your reality.
But that’s not even the worst of it. The most serious cases (especially those left untreated) can escalate to shortness of breath, intense dehydration, trouble breathing, and in some unfortunate cases, death.
Before getting too deep into its symptoms and side-effects, it’s smart to study up on what the Lone Stick Tick actually is, and where to find it. Named for the Texas-shaped white mark found on its shell (sorry for the scare, Texas), the lone star tick, like many of its distant cousins, likes to hang out in woodland areas — grasses, forests, etc.
If it sounds serious, that’s because it is. A single bite from the tick is enough to hijack and rewire your entire immune system to completely intolerant of meat. Here’s how.
When a human is bitten by a lone star tick, something (researchers aren’t quite sure what, possibly trace amounts of chemicals absorbed from the blood of a previous meal) in the tick’s saliva commandeers the immune system, causing it to flag alpha-gal, a protein-linked saccharide hormone found in red meat. If the affected human then later ingests any amount of red meat (significant or trace), the immune system will release a staggering amount of histamines — much like what happens when individuals with nut allergies eat or come into contact with nuts or oils. Because the intolerance to meat comes after years of eating meat, most of the affected attribute the reaction to something unrelated and continue on eating meat as usual — a potentially deadly move.
Physicians have been studying the lone star tick for years (it also carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever), but it’s picked up speed and ground as of late. An onslaught of recent cases have been reported in Duluth, Minnesota and Hanover, New Hampshire. And those planning trips to the Hamptons this summer should be particularly aware that at least 100 cases have been reported on the eastern tip of Long Island in the past year alone.
Thankfully, there are ways to avoid the tick. If you’re planning on spending any time outdoors this summer, make sure you arm yourself with a significant coating of bug spray with DEET. Stick to cleared trails if you can, and wear long sleeves and pants tucked into your socks. After spending time outside, be sure to check yourself for ticks (ask your honey or a friend to help check the parts you can’t see). When doing so, be on the lookout for freckles you haven’t noticed before. Because many ticks are so small, they’re often mistaken for sunspots and freckles. And if you happen to find a tick, use tweezers to pull it out in one fell swoop, squeeze it to kill, then stick it in a baggie to save. It’s good to have on hand for your doctor in case you start to have some kind of reaction.
It’s unclear whether the lone star tick is acting alone or if other ticks have since adopted its effects, but scientists are working around the clock to better understand its threat and contain the damage. Because from the looks of it, alpha-gal is the only allergy to date that affects all humans. In other words, no one is safe.