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.
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.
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.