Danielle O’Dell; Wildlife Research Ecologist
By now, most of us have sadly accepted the fact that black-legged or deer ticks are part of the Nantucket experience whether we like it or not. We’ve all developed methods for avoiding ticks with insect repellents, wearing light colored clothing, or tucking our pants into our socks. We have our routines down to a science for checking for ticks after excursions outside doing yard work or walking on the miles of trails across the island’s conservation properties. Unfortunately, so many Nantucketers and visitors alike have been afflicted with the myriad diseases that deer ticks can transmit including Lyme Disease, Babesiosis and Anaplasmosis.
I hate being the bearer of bad news but there’s a new sheriff in town and that is the Lone Star Tick. While thankfully this tick isn’t known to transmit Lyme Disease, it can cause other life-changing issues that should not be taken lightly. This tick can transmit a sugar molecule called galactose-α-1,3-galactose, or Alpha-gal for short. This molecule is found in most mammals but it is completely foreign to humans and other primates. When this sugar molecule is transmitted to humans through a tick bite, it can cause the body to form an antibody reaction which can result in an allergy to alpha-gal. Because most other mammals have the alpha-gal molecule, every time mammal meat is consumed, an allergic reaction is possible. Meat from cows, pigs, lamb, bison, venison, etc. all contain alpha-gal, as do their milk products as well. Meaning, all dairy, whey products, gelatin also contain alpha-gal!
These ticks are native and common in the southeast US but climate change is causing warmer winters in the northeast and has allowed the range expansion of this tick. Our winters along the coast are no longer cold enough for long enough to knock back the populations of this tick. Residents of Tuckernuck have been quite familiar with Lone Star Ticks for some years now. Lone Stars are so prevalent on Tuckernuck almost to the exclusion of deer ticks. Other coastal areas in New England have also been seeing an increase in Lone Star Ticks including eastern Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard. While Lone Stars have occasionally been found on Nantucket historically, the west side of the Island has seen an explosion in the populations over the last 2 or 3 years and they are moving east. Last summer, breeding was documented in the Ram Pasture area.
Luckily, adult Lone Star Ticks are easily recognizable. They are significantly larger than deer ticks and the females have a distinct white spot in the middle of the top of their abdomen.
Unfortunately for the science staff at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and for all our partner conservation organizations on island, ticks are definitely a hazard of the job given the amount of time we spend in the woods and shrubbery. I admit that I had heard tell of the alpha-gal meat allergy and I admit that I sort of chalked it up to being a bit of a myth or something that was exceptionally rare. Well, I was wrong on both counts.
Approximately four weeks after having been bitten by two adult Lone Star Ticks last summer, I began suffering from excruciating stomach pain. I can spare you, dear reader, from the gory details here but this went on for a few weeks and several doctor’s appointments with no answers as to what was causing this pain. I assumed that an allergic reaction would cause itching and hives, I did not know that gastro-intestinal issues were one of the most common symptoms of an alpha-gal allergy. It wasn’t until I started developing hives on my arms that I began wondering if the two were related. A trip back to Dr. Lepore’s office, I described my suspicions and he agreed it was a possibility and ordered a blood test. Sure enough, I was alpha-gal antibody positive.
Common symptoms include:
- Hives or itchy rash
- Nausea or vomiting
- Severe stomach pain
- Heartburn or indigestion
- Cough, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing
- Drop in blood pressure
- Swelling of the lips, throat, tongue, or eye lids
- Dizziness or faintness
From speaking with others who have also developed this allergy, symptoms seem to vary widely as does the severity. Some people have multiple symptoms, some only one or two. Some people can even test positive for the antibody to the molecule but have no reaction at all. Some people are fine to continue eating dairy while others cannot even tolerate even the fumes from cooking meat. According to the CDC, there were 34,000 cases diagnosed in the US between 2010-2010. Last year on Martha’s Vineyard, 79 cases were documented. There are several new cases on Nantucket that I know of over the last year and some Nantucketers have been suffering from this allergy here for years.
Apparently, for some it is possible that this allergy will wane over time. For others it can last many years. Subsequent bites from Lone Star Ticks can reactivate this allergy. For me, this allergy has been a constant experiment in what I can tolerate – I can tolerate goat cheese but most cow cheese is a no-go. Occasional ice cream is worth the pain 😊 and I always have Benadryl in my bag. The good news is that fish, chicken, and turkey are all still on the menu (anything non-mammal is ok!). But this has certainly caused some lifestyle changes for myself and my family.
If the idea of a mostly vegetarian or vegan diet isn’t palatable to you, I urge you to up your game on tick checks and avoidance regimes. We don’t have bears or venomous snakes here, but we apparently make up for it by having the wee beasties that can do a number with their debilitating diseases and meat allergies!
Disclaimer! I am not a physician and can’t give medical advice! But I am happy to share my experience if anyone wants to know more.
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us now! www.nantucketconservation.org