The Latest Tick Horror Story

Photo: Thomas Bresson

Photo: Thomas Bresson

File this under “reasons to be glad that I am not an Eastern Woodlands Hiker”:

People have been turning up at Long Island allergists with an unusual complaint: they are suddenly sensitive to eating red meat. A trip to Burger King might cause them serious stomach distress. These people are not vegetarians or vegans on a holiday: they are people for whom steaks, burgers, and roast beef have been a mainstay of their diet. One doctor has seen nearly 200 cases so far this year.

The originator of the autoimmune system going haywire is the Lone Star Tick. Readers of this blog know that I hate ticks. This one scares me because I do consume a weekly steak. My first experiences with ticks happened in the Southeast where this particular species is spreading rapidly.

How does the tick make us sick? NBC New York looked into the medical mystery and learned that

The bugs harbor a sugar that humans don’t have, called alpha-gal. The sugar is also found in red meat — beef, pork, venison, rabbit — and some dairy products. It’s usually fine when people encounter it through food that gets digested.

But a tick bite triggers an immune system response, and in that high-alert state, the body perceives the sugar the tick transmitted to the victim’s bloodstream and skin as a foreign substance, and makes antibodies to it. That sets the stage for an allergic reaction the next time the person eats red meat and encounters the sugar.

Sufferers of tick-induced meat allergies report symptoms such as swollen hands, hives, swollen lips and tongue, and constricted airways. Doctors were mystified by the disease which cropped up among hunters and children who played in the forest, but it was not until 2011 that they fingered the arachnid.

If bitten, carry allergy medicine when you go out to your favorite chop house or taqueria. So far, we haven’t seen the Lone Star Tick in California, but rest assured that if cases do pop up here I will tell you about it.

Lyme Disease and Spotted Fever are no longer the only problems that ticks bring us. I’ve been through allergic attacks caused by other vectors. As one who has had his life saved by a nebulizer, I can say that I don’t want to go through this kind of thing again. Plus it scares my wife.

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