Warmer weather breaks across yonder skies and the outdoorsiest of Americans yearn for the woods and fields. Farmers, fisherfolk, and waders of streams all take spiders and bugs in stride, but growing concern is mounting by way of ticks and a rare type of mammalian meat allergy known as the alpha-gal allergy. But alpha-gal isn’t the only tick-borne disease to concern people and pets alike.
Most people know that ticks and bugs in general can be dangerous, but the warnings are worth repeating season after season, particularly for those families with small children. It only takes one bite from one tick, perhaps buzzing about a wooded trail near you, to bring on illnesses that can be life-changing.
The clock ticks toward springtime
The swath of America where tick species thrive is so large it’s fair to remind everyone with pets and the potential for outdoors activities. Warmer, wetter weather throughout the country is the time of year to be particularly concerned, although people who work with animals indoors and inside barns would be best advised to be on the lookout every day.
While walking through the woods, keep in mind to avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaves. If in a park with trail, be conscious to stay in the center of the trails and do a quick check of your own skin and hair afterwards while checking small children and pets. Numerous tick and bug repellant are available on the market. The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people use a repellant containing 20 percent or more of DEET, or IR3535, on exposed skin. Follow product instructions and avoid direct contact with eyes and mouth. Parents of small children should consider applying the product on their behalf. The CDC also advises parents to consider using products containing permethrin on clothing and other gear, such as boots, socks, tents and hats. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers an online tool that can help people choose which repellant is most appropriate for them.
When checking oneself for ticks, the use of a mirror is helpful to look on your body’s backside. Try to shower with hot water as soon as possible, and be sure to check under your arms, in and around ears, inside your belly button, behind the knees and legs, as well as in your hair. Keep in mind that ticks travel and can get trapped inside clothing and other gear. Make sure to wash clothing in hot water as it can kill the ticks. Tumble dry clothes in a dryer on high heat for at least 10 minutes as an added measure.
In terms of diagnosing oneself, the CDC’s list of potential tick-borne diseases and symptoms reads like a mini horror story. Most people are familiar with Colorado tick fever and Lyme disease, but other lesser known illnesses among the dozen-plus include Heartland virus and Ehrlichiosis. Unfortunately, the signs and symptoms of a tick bite might take a while to recognize. The symptoms can range from mild to severe and could require hospitalization. Early recognition and treatment is always the preferred method and many of the symptoms are clear if you’re on the look-out.
The most common signs include fever and chills, aches, pains and rashes. These may manifest themselves anywhere from three to 30 days after the bite, so be cognizant of where you’ve been. For sufferers of Lyme disease, the rash typically precedes a fever and is circular in shape at the site of the bite. Rocky Mountain spotted fever varies from person to person, and some people never develop a rash. Those that do manifest small, flat, pink spots on their wrists, arms, ankles and trunk. This typically precedes a fever.
What is the alpha-gal allergy?
In vegan nutshell — a very bad thing.
Although lesser known perhaps, this disease associated with the lone star tick carries with it a particular type of meat allergy that renders them incapable of eating the meat of mammals. Hamburgers, gone. Lamb chops, gone. Steak, gone. Pork chops, venison, ice cream and cheese, gone. And at present, there is no cure for the alpha-gal allergy.
But, to be more specific, the allergen itself is identified as a specific carbohydrate called galactose-α-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal for short. This particular sugar has two galactose sugars linked in an alpha-1-3 linkage, and is found as a coating of sorts on some types of proteins. The allergy is characterized by a delayed reaction of urticaria or anaphylaxis appearing four to eight hours post-consumption. Interestingly enough, the human does not have alpha-gal within its body, nor do most primates. Non-primate mammals on the other hand do, including cows, sheep, pigs, cats and dogs. Because humans don’t have that particular sugar within their make-up, their body typically generates an immune response to it when consumed by way of eating meat. This immune response can be damaged though, as is the case with the alpha-gal allergy, in which case a reaction will be manifest. The allergen can also be present in the lactate and other milk-related products associated with these animals, and chicken or fish injected with beef flavorings as well.
According to Dr. Scott Commins, an allergist and professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, there were about 3,500 documented reports of red meat allergy in the United States, but that might become higher as awareness and testing increases.
“I think it really is increasing,” he stated, noting that his team first published a paper on the topic in 2009 and had 24 patients. Since then, the diagnosis has spread throughout the southeastern and eastern side of the U.S. Some of this, he opines, could be due to the spread of the lone star ticks’ habitat. In 2016, a New York allergist based on Long Island observed more than 200 patients who had been affected, he said, adding cases are popping up in Australia and various parts of Europe.
In the meantime, prevention is always the best cure and those heading to the great outdoors should maintain vigilance in terms of tick-prevention, for both themselves and their children and pets.