A Bite From This Tiny Tick Can Turn You into a Vegetarian

The tiny Lone Star tick can succeed where countless health experts and diet planners have failed – this bug has the power to put people off red meat! The tick isn’t vegetarian itself, but it sure can turn you into one for life.

Scientifically known as Amblyomma americanum, these ticks carry a variety of diseases, but what makes them truly fascinating is their ability to make people allergic to meat. That’s because they carry a substance called alpha-gal (Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose), which is a type of carbohydrate found in non-primate mammals. Now, alpha-gal isn’t present in the human body, but our guts can digest it without negative effects under normal conditions. So when we eat meat that contains alpha-gal, we’re able to handle it without any problems.

But when the stuff enters the bloodstream through the Lone Star’s bite, it’s a totally different ballgame – the human immune system recognizes it as a foreign substance and produces antibodies to protect against it. These antibodies remain in the system, so the next time meat containing alpha-gal is ingested, it can trigger violent allergic reactions.


Photo: CDC Public Image library

The intensity of the allergic reaction varies with different people. In severe cases, chowing down on bacon or beef could result in the feeling of being on fire and an inability to breathe. In some cases, the reactions get worse each time a person is exposed to alpha-gal and the symptoms can manifest for as long as eight hours after eating meat, making it very difficult to identify the trigger.

The condition has no known cure, and doctors aren’t sure if the allergy wears off with time. So an infected person has to avoid red meat completely for life, if they want to skip the itchy hives, or in some cases, the possibility of instantaneous death. Even individuals who respond positively to antihistamine drugs are asked to carry EPI pens at all times in case of a rare adverse allergic reaction.


Photo: Wikipedia

Fortunately, there’s good news – fish and poultry are alpha-gal-free so a person affected by the Lone Star tick induced allergy can still consume them without fear of side-effects. It’s just mammalian meat, or red meat, that makes the allergies kick in. However, some dairy products as well as vegetables cooked in beef or pork fat can also cause allergy symptoms.

The association of meat allergies with the Lone Star tick’s bite was first made seven years ago in Australia, when an infestation of a different species of tick produced similar symptoms. In an article published on ScienceDaily in February, the Vanderbilt University Medical Center warned people about the serious effects of the tick’s bite.

“Lone star tick bites are likely the cause of thousands of cases of severe red meat allergies that are plaguing patients in Southeastern United States including Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia, and spreading up the Eastern Seaboard along with the deer population,” the article stated. “The allergy can cause hives and swelling, as well as broader symptoms of anaphylaxis including vomiting, diarrhea, trouble breathing, and a drop in blood pressure. Persons with the allergy can go into a delayed anaphylactic shock four-six hours after eating red meat.”

Scientists are quite baffled with the idea of a tick-induced allergy, especially because alpha-gal is a sugar and not a protein. Most allergies are immune responses to proteins, like peanuts. In fact, alpha-gal allergy is the only known case of a sugar-triggered allergy in the world.

Sources: Science Daily, All Things Human

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