When you think of tick bites, you think of Lyme disease, or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, right? On the other hand, you probably know more than one person with food allergies. So what could these two things possibly have in common? Surprisingly, there is growing evidence that the bite of a lone star tick can result in developing a food allergy to meat. And, while this tick was traditionally found in the Southeastern United States, its habitat is growing, having been found from Maine to Missouri, and as far west as Texas.
About Food Allergies
Many people report reactions to different types of foods, but not all are allergies. While discomfort experienced after eating specific foods can be caused by a variety of causes, food allergies are the specific result of an immune response to the food in question. When first exposed to the food through ingestion, the body abnormally identifies it as foreign and dangerous, and creates antibodies to attack any future intrusion. Whenever the food is eaten again, there is usually an immediate response by the immune system that results in a number of symptoms. These symptoms often include hives, swelling, sneezing, headaches, abdominal pain and cramping, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. They can however progress into much more dangerous symptoms such as swelling of the oral passages and severe wheezing. The worst reactions can result in anaphylaxis, low blood pressure, circulatory collapse, fatal cardiac rhythms, and death, if left untreated. Food allergies are not random or isolated occurrences. Once an allergy has developed, the symptoms can be expected to occur every time the food is eaten.
Most patients with a meat allergy report severe hives and itching, swelling, and even anaphylaxis. Less frequently, they complain of abdominal cramping and pain, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, or fainting. While allergic reactions generally occur within minutes to a few hours after ingestion of the food, reactions to meat products are often delayed, occurring up to 4 to 6 hours later. This lapse in time sometimes makes the diagnosis of a food allergy difficult.
The Lone Star Tick
The lone star tick, or Amblyomma americanum, is generally found across the eastern, southeastern and Midwestern United States. However, it may develop populations outside of this range, and in fact, has recently been found farther north and west than its initial habitat. It is primarily found in woodland areas, particularly near white-tailed deer. It is similar in size to dog ticks, is larger than deer ticks, and gets its name from the silvery white spot found on the female’s back. The lone star tick is particularly aggressive, and has a variety of hosts including humans, domesticated animals and livestock, wild turkey, and wild mammals. Because of its affinity to multiple hosts, its risk to humans is increased as it may be transported to human dwellings by any number of prior host – dogs, cats, horses, rodents, etc.
The lone star tick does not cause Lyme disease; however, its bite may cause a similar circular rash, which can also be accompanied by a fever, headache, joint pains, and fatigue. These symptoms are associated with southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI), which is not known to be associated with any long-term complications.
While most food allergies are a result of a reaction to protein, meat allergies are caused by sensitization to a carbohydrate found in the flesh of mammals called allergen alpha-gal. This carbohydrate also happens to be found in the gastrointestinal tract of the lone star tick. During the attachment process of the tick bite, stomach contents are regurgitated into the skin of the host. This creates the opportunity for the person affected to develop the antibodies against alpha-gal, which will then cause allergic reactions to future exposure to this same carbohydrate found in most meats. Again, this is mammalian meat, so poultry and fish will not elicit the same reaction.
Treatment and Prevention
The first line of defense against developing this allergy is prevention. A tick bite can occur at any time, but ticks are most active in the warmest months of the year. If possible, avoid wooded areas and stick to trails that are cleared. The CDC recommends that if you are involved in activities that put you at risk of exposure to ticks, protect your skin with repellent that contains 20% or more of DEET, picaridin, or IR3535. Be sure to follow the product’s instructions and parents should apply repellent on children. You should also treat your clothing and gear (boots, socks, tents) with products containing 0.5% permethrin. Wear light clothing and make sure you inspect your clothing, gear, your entire body, and your pets. You should use a mirror if possible and pay close attention under your arms, around your ears, inside your belly button, behind your knees, between your legs, around your waist and in your hair. Again, parents should attend carefully to their children. It is also recommended that that you take a shower after being outdoors, wash your clothes in hot water and dry them in a dryer under high heat until they are completely dry.
If you find a tick, you should use tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible, and pull upward with steady pressure. Do not twist or jerk, as this may leave part of the tick in your skin. Next, you should carefully clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, iodine scrub, or soap and water. To get rid of the tick, place it in rubbing alcohol or a sealed container, wrap it tightly in tape, or flush it in the toilet. Throughout the next 30 days, if you experience a rash, fever, chills, joint pain, skin ulcer, or swollen glands, see your doctor immediately and make sure they know you have experienced a tick bite. Most infections are treatable with antibiotics, but it is important to seek timely medical treatment.
Living with a Meat Allergy
If you suspect you have developed an allergy to meat, it is important to discuss it with your doctor. You should try to remember as much as possible about your experience, including what and how much you ate, how long after you ate that the symptoms appeared, what symptoms you experienced and how long they lasted. Blood tests and skin tests can be used to determine your specific allergies. After diagnosis, the most important way to manage this problem is to avoid the foods you are allergic to. Remember to tell servers at restaurants about your allergies, ask to speak with the chef if necessary, and remind them to prepare your food without contamination by the foods you can’t eat.
Every person with a known food allergy should carry two doses of auto-injectable epinephrine pens with them at all times. Epinephrine is a prescription medication, and can temporarily reverse an allergic reaction until you can get additional medical care. Always make sure to check your expiration dates and be sure you know how to use the pen. If you experience shortness of breath, coughing, weakness, hives, throat tightening, or trouble breathing, or if you experience hives and nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain, you should use the epinephrine immediately and call 911. The dose can be repeated once in 5-15 minutes, but remember, it is very important that you receive emergency medical care immediately after auto-injecting. At that time, additional treatments such as antihistamines and steroids may be administered to prevent further complications.
We care about your health and safety. If you have any further questions about food allergies, tick bites, or any other health concerns, we would like to hear from you. To schedule an appointment with one of our highly trained, board certified medical staff, please contact us at Patient Care Now Urgent Care at (267) 202-6433. We’re open from 8 am – 8 pm during the week, and 8 am – 6 pm on weekends.