Lone Star tick, female, top – male, bottom
Helen Olive had her first allergy attack 11 years ago. She had gone to bed only to wake up hours later because her neck felt as if it were on fire…”It was terrible,” said Olive, who is 42 and lives in North Carolina. “The sensation was all over my body and then I developed hives.”
A slender woman with wavy, reddish-brown hair and blue eyes, Olive might appear perfectly healthy. But waking up in the middle of the night with uncontrollable itching and nausea became a common theme in her life.
As her symptoms continued to increase, she made an appointment with the Carolina Asthma and Allergy Center. Her blood test showed that she was very allergic to meat. Olive’s doctor informed her that a meat allergy was “not common.”
But two allergists at the University of Virginia have gathered data showing that the food allergy Olive has, known as galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal for short, is affecting more than 1,500 Americans. The researchers suspect there are many more unidentified cases…
What causes the allergy may be surprising.
All known patients who have alpha-gal have had at least one tick bite. Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, who also suffers from alpha-gal, made the connection after receiving countless bites while hiking in the woods one August. As a result, his level of IgE, which measures the alpha-gal allergy in one’s blood, went up several-hundred points. That is when Platts-Mills concluded there is some relation to the number of tick bites one receives and how allergic one may become to alpha-gal.
Platts-Mills and Commins said the allergic reaction is specifically related to the common lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum). These ticks cover various plains across the United States. An important distinction is that alpha-gal is not a disease like Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever — it is an allergy.
“Presumably something happened with the ticks,” said Platts-Mills. “It could possibly be a new tick spreading.”
The doctors believe the allergy could more closely be related to bites that come from tick larvae, or baby ticks…”Perhaps there is an organism in the tick’s saliva that makes a person allergic to the alpha-gal sugar in mammalian meat,” Commins said.
For meat lovers, especially hunters, the simplest solution is to avoid ticks — as if that’s an easy thing to do.
I’ve been through a mild case of Lyme disease. Mild – probably because we caught it early. I was very much aware of the symptoms because I knew one of the folks who suffered through discovery of the disease – who spent months disabled by it.
This ain’t a disease but the vector is the same. Scary.
RTFA for details. Fascinating – and unresolved. Hopefully researchers will find out the actual mechanism and become better able to treat folks.