Ticks Spreading A Meat Allergy Along The East Coast

By Amir Khan on June 20, 2012 5:02 PM EDT

Lone Star Tick
The lone star tick, named because of a white spot on its back, is spreading a meat allergy so strong it's forcing some people to become vegetarians, (Photo: Creative Commons)

Most people know that ticks can spread Lyme disease, but more and more people on the East Coast are finding out that some ticks can cause another problem. The lone star tick, named because of a white spot on its back, is spreading a meat allergy so strong it's forcing some people to become vegetarians, researchers are now saying.

"People will eat beef and then anywhere from three to six hours later start having a reaction; anything from hives to full-blown anaphylactic shock," Dr. Scott Commins, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, told ABC News. "And most people want to avoid having the reaction, so they try to stay away from the food that triggers it."

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The lone star tick is found from Texas up to Maine and all along the East Coast, and Commins said when the tick bites you, some saliva mixes in and triggers the agonizing allergy. Commins  has seen over 400 cases of the meat allergy this year -- 90 percent of whom have a history of tick bites.

"It's hard to prove," he said. "We're still searching for the mechanism."

People bitten by the tick become allergic to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal, a sugar found in animal meat, Commins told CNN.

"Perhaps there is an organism in the tick's saliva that makes a person allergic to the alpha-gal sugar in mammalian meat," he said.

Dr. Erin McGintee, who resides in the Hamptons, has seen several cases of the allergy herself and said while it is dangerous, it is also very interesting.

"Intellectually, it's such a cool allergy on so many levels," she told CNN. "It's a sugar, not a protein, and most food allergies occur in response to a protein antigen."

There is currently no treatment for the allergy, so researchers say the best thing to do is prevent tick bites in the first place.

The best prevention against Lyme disease is wearing protective clothing such as hats, long-sleeved shirts and long pants when walking through areas where the disease is prevalent, according to the Mayo Clinic. Wearing light colors makes ticks more visible when stuck to clothing.

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