The Lone Star Tick and Alpha-Gal

By Toney McElroy

You may think this is a story involving two characters in heroic quests in the outdoors.  I can assure you, there is nothing fun about this duo.

Anyone that spends very much time outside understands what it is to have a tick bite.  In Iowa, we usually deal with the deer tick or what is sometimes referred to as the black-legged tick.  These are the ticks that carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.  They also cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and are the ticks that most of us are familiar with.  But what is a Lone Star tick and who is this ‘ Alpha-Gal ‘?

Iowa is home to more than a dozen species of ticks with the three most common being the Deer tick, Dog tick and Lone Star. What exactly is a Lone Star tick and why are they becoming more important to Iowans?  Lone Star ticks are distinctive by having a small white spot in the middle of their back.  Outside of that, they resemble the rest of the ticks that annoy us while mushroom hunting or fishing.

So what’s the big deal you may be asking? How does an allergy to red meat sound? Scientists believe the allergy, known as Alpha-GAL Syndrome, can develop after a bite from a Lone Star tick. When the tick bites the right host, it transmits a sugar molecule known as Alpha_GAL ( galactose-a-1, 3-galactose ). This molecule in turn causes the body’s immune system to react. While most people have different reactions, some can be severe and end up in an emergency room visit.

How did we get here? Lone Star ticks and Alpha-GAL have had the most impact in the eastern/southeast part of the United States. Until recently, the Midwest has not shown many cases. The Mayo Clinic attributes its spread to deer carrying the tick to other parts of the country.  While avoiding tick bites is the key to prevention, our hobbies don’t always allow that.

What happens if I find a Lone Star tick on me? For most of us, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s another tick bite.  For my wife, it means feeling like your intestines are being torn apart. It means no more steaks on the grill, no more racks of ribs during July 4th cookouts or any other mammal products.

Living in cattle and swine country I know what you’re thinking, “How can I live without steak or pork chops!?” It takes some getting used to but there are alternatives. No, I’m not trying to convert anyone but I have tried the vegetable patties and if I had to, I could believe they were beef.  Many social platforms have groups dedicated to Alpha-GAL support and diets. They say Emu tastes like beef but I haven’t gotten that far.  Luckily, I have an understanding significant other and I don’t have to sneak a burger when she’s not around.

What exactly is Alpha-GAL Syndrome? Alpha-GAL is a sugar molecule found in most mammals. What this means for people with the allergy is, if the animal nurses its young, it’s off limits for consumption. It also means that anything made from mammals could cause a reaction. Some of these would include medications, cosmetics, gelatin and milk products.

Diagnosis is often difficult due to the fact that a reaction may not occur for up to six hours after ingestion. You may sit down one evening for a nice steak dinner and find yourself awakened at midnight. It takes your body that long to break down the molecules and leaves you wondering what could be the problem.

Anaphylactic reactions to Alpha-GAL can include:

  • Rash
  • Hives
  • Vomiting or Nausea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Severe stomach pain

Diagnosis may also be difficult due to the lack of known cases in Iowa and lack of testing.  An allergist is the best approach for testing but your family doctor can also run tests.  A blood test to check for specific antibodies as well as an allergy skin test is usually in order.

The most recommended course of action for avoiding tick bites include:

  • Avoid grassy or brushy areas
  • Wear long sleeves and pants when possible and light colored clothing to make ticks easier to spot
  • Use EPA registered insect repellants that contain DEET

epa.gov/insect-repellants/find-repellants-right-you

  • Treat your clothing and any gear you carry with a repellent containing 0.5% Permethrin
  • Treat your dogs or cats with your veterinarian recommendations

When we get back to the truck we always check each other over for ticks. The areas they seem to like the most are behind my knees, my waistline and belly button. That’s always the fun one. Hair lines and the top of your head seem to be a favorite hangout as well. If we go mushroom hunting, I always pull up my pants and spray around my ankles first. For this next part, you’re going to need a spotter so passersbys don’t mistake your preventative measures for something else.  After I’ve sprayed repellant around my ankle area, I lower my jeans and spray around my knees. From there I move up to mid-thigh and spray a complete circle, around my waist and then around my chest.

I finish off by spraying around my wrists, elbows and below the shoulders. I’m guessing some of you may read that and think, I bet you smell great with all that bug killer on! But hey, this is the loss of bacon cheeseburgers we’re talking about! I’m not taking the chance no matter how much a large bird from Australia may look and taste like a ribeye on the grill.

So here we are, we’ve been out all day picking mushrooms or busting up crappie around the farm pond and you’ve found a tick. What now? We used to grab it and pop it out. With that, you take the risk of leaving part or all the head embedded or risking infection.

The best recommendation is to use fine tipped tweezers and grab the tick as close to your skin as possible. While applying a steady, upward pressure, don’t twist or jerk until the tick comes free.  After you have the tick removed and disposed of, clean the area of the bite with alcohol or soap and water.  It is also recommended to shower as soon as you can to wash off any ticks that may have gone unnoticed.

With spring right around the corner, if you have concerns of Lone Star ticks in your area, let me know.  I will be glad to scout your mushroom area ahead of time and let you know if I find any…ticks.