This Tick Is Causing a Strange Health Problem: Meat Allergies

A plague of vegetarianism doesn’t sound like the worst public health problem to have, does it? Unfortunately, these victims of tick-borne illness aren’t going veg by choice: They’ve developed an alpha-gal allergy that makes it very dangerous to eat meat.

This isn’t the only health issue lone star ticks can carry with them, and the problem is getting worse as ticks expand their original range.

As you might have guessed from the name, lone star ticks originated in Texas, although they’re endemic to other areas across Mexico and the Southeast too. The CDC has observed that ticks, and the illnesses that travel with them, are expanding their geographic range and remain active for longer periods during the year. As temperatures warm, ticks find it easier to range further afield, while development into formerly wooded and other natural areas can increase the risk of coming into contact with them.

In people who develop alpha-gal allergy after lone star tick bites, their immune systems incorrectly identify a carbohydrate called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose — you can see why we prefer “alpha-gal” — as a threat. When people consume alpha-gal, their bodies start attacking it, sometimes causing extremely severe allergic reactions that can include anaphylaxis.

Alpha-gal is found in a variety of mammalian meat, so people eating red meat or pork can get very sick, while poultry and fish don’t cause problems. Incidentally, primates don’t have alpha-gal either.

Some people experience hives, gastrointestinal distress and airway obstruction, all of which can set in hours after eating meat – one reason it can be hard to initially figure out the cause. The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology notes that tests are available to check for sensitivity to alpha-gal, as well as other potential allergy triggers found in meat.

Antihistamines can help with mild reactions — and some people take them before food in the hopes of offsetting a reaction — but in patients with extreme allergies, an epinephrine shot may be necessary. You can see why some individuals diagnosed with alpha-gal allergy decide it’s easier, and safer, to just stop eating meat.

But this isn’t the only problem created by lone star ticks. Some bites can cause human monocytotropic ehrlichiosis, a potentially dangerous syndrome that starts with muscle aches and headaches, but can lead to organ failure and respiratory arrest without treatment. These ticks are also associated with tularemia, a bacterial infection that may cause skin ulcerations, respiratory problems and other unpleasant conditions. The CDC also warns that lone star ticks can cause Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI), which involves rashes, muscle aches and fatigue. It can be treated with a course of antibiotics.

The spread of alpha-gal — which is still extremely rare — is a warning sign that these ticks are moving north, and carrying infectious illness with them. Take precautions to protect yourself, especially in the summer months:

  • Wear tick repellant — the CDC provides a list of tested and effective natural options if you’re not a fan of harsh chemicals and the EPA offers a similar tool – and make sure to treat your clothing and tents, as well.
  • Wear high boots to discourage hitchhikers, and tuck your pants into your boots.
  • When you return from outdoor adventures, remove and shake out your clothes — and dry them for ten minutes on high to kill any lingering visitors, if you can.
  • Check your body, as well as your pets, for signs of ticks.

If you’re bitten by a tick, you should try to remove it intact by gripping it with tweezers and pulling steadily upwards — don’t twist! If you notice a rash or irritation around the site of the tick bite, or start to feel unwell, consult a doctor.

And hey, while you’re at it, you might as well go vegetarian.

Photo credit: NIAID


Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan H7 hours ago

Go vegan even without the help of a tick.

Freya H
Freya H7 hours ago

The meat allergy may be cute, but the other potential problems aren't.

Elisabeth T
Elisabeth T7 hours ago

Thanks for sharing

Jennifer H
Jennifer H19 hours ago

Wow. Scary. Thanks for sharing.

Shirley S
Shirley S20 hours ago


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Ann B
Ann B2 days ago

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Ann B
Ann B2 days ago

with the extreme heat ,ticks are thick this year--be prepared

Peggy B
Peggy B3 days ago


Winn A
Winn A3 days ago