The amblyomma americanum, also known as the turkey tick or eastern water tick, but usually known by its more common name due to the lone white ‘star’ on its back, was previously indigenous to the eastern United States and Mexico. However, its range and numbers have been spreading in recent years, along with the entire tick population. And while the Lone Star tick isn’t usually on people’s radar because it doesn’t carry Lyme disease, it can still have a lifelong and profound effect on your health.
While the bite of the Lone Star tick may be painless and go unnoticed, the unwitting victim may decide to have a delicious hamburger a few days after a long hike and find themselves with anaphylaxis. About 3-6 hours after eating red meat, the bite victim may develop hives, nausea, diarrhea, terrible itching all over the body, and swelling. Many people, especially those with asthma, will experience breathing difficulties. It will seem to be so out of the blue that it can be difficult to make the connection to a tick bite.
This allergic reaction is called an Alpha-gal allergy, or mammalian meat allergy. All mammals except for primates have the Alpha-gal sugar in their bodies, and primates (like humans) have an antibody that specifically reacts to it. When the tick bites a deer or other mammal, and then bites a human, the Alpha-gal carbohydrate is transferred to the victim’s blood, which causes this delayed allergic reaction to red meat but not to poultry or fish. There is no known cure because it is a complete shift in the body’s immune system, and while symptoms can diminish over time, it has been reported that many sufferers have experienced this allergy for over 20 years.
When the tick bites a deer or other mammal and then bites a human, the Alpha-gal carbohydrate is transferred to the victim’s blood, which causes this delayed allergic reaction to red meat but not to poultry or fish.
The good news: there’s a blood test that can tell you if you have this allergy, and there are many ways to prevent tick bites. It used to be that your location could tell you whether you were at risk of a tick bite or not, but today that may not necessarily be true. With the increase in the range of ticks, and the spread of ticks that carry risks, such as the Alpha-gal allergy or Lyme disease, the best policy is being aware no matter where you are. (Lone Star ticks have spread north into eastern Canada, and Lyme disease is increasing across North America and Europe.)
The Lone Star tick, like many ticks, thrives in the low underbrush of forests and the in-between places where the woods meet up with grasslands. This is usually where they find their prey, which are mostly deer, by ‘questing’. The tick will quest by making its way to the top of the grass or the highest leaves of a bush and reach out with its legs. Any kind of heat, vibration, or biochemical change, such as an increase in carbon dioxide, can trigger the tick to jump or run onto a new host – which could be you.
Lone Star ticks are much more aggressive than other tick species, which wait to be brushed past, and will proactively run towards their prey. Luckily a Lone Star tick must be attached to the skin for 24-36 hours to transfer material from its gut to the human, so this allergy may be preventable.
Preventing Tick Bites
The first step in tick prevention is to cover your skin with long pants and long sleeves and wear a hat or bandana to keep them out of your hair. Your legs are particularly vulnerable, and it’s even better to tape your pants to your socks and wear light-colored clothes to make ticks more visible. You can also spray your clothes and any exposed skin with insect repellent. While most health agencies recommend repellent containing DEET along with proper clothing, Herbal Armor Insect Repellent Spray is a safe alternative. For more information, see 5 Tips for a Tick-Free Summer.
When you get home after a hike or outdoor adventure, strip down and have a family member help you check for ticks, especially in the folds of your skin. Comb your hair with a fine-toothed comb to make sure none are around your scalp. They aren’t very big or obvious and will look like a small black dot more similar to a mole or even a freckle.
How to Remove Ticks
If you find one, don’t panic! There are a lot of old wives’ tales about what to do to remove ticks, but none of them are a good idea. Burning, suffocation and squeezing can all make the problem worse – the tick will just stay in the skin longer, and you can run the risk of infection. Instead, the tick needs to be pulled out with pointy tweezers by grasping the head as close to the mouth as possible. Pull gently and steadily straight out.
Once the tick is removed, wash the area well with soap and water. Do NOT crush the tick with your fingers. This can increase the spread of disease, which is what you are trying to avoid in the first place. Instead, flush it down the toilet or get it tested. In most places you would bring the tick to your doctor for testing. However, to test for Lyme disease, it has to be alive. A pill bottle with a slightly moistened cotton ball can do the trick, but it probably won’t survive more than 24 hours.
Allergic Reactions from Lone Star Ticks
The first symptom of a meat allergy is usually a rash or hives, but unlike other food allergies that happen a little sooner, it can take six hours to start seeing a reaction. Most people’s first step would be to take an antihistamine and hope they feel better, but an awareness of having a tick bite and seeing this kind of reaction after eating red meat could save your life. Anaphylaxis due to a meat allergy can have wildly varying effects on people, from a mild reaction only once to a severe and life-threatening reaction for decades, especially when the victim has had anaphylaxis before. An allergist is qualified to diagnose the symptoms and in many cases the sufferer may be prescribed an EpiPen.
If you believe that you or someone you know is having an anaphylactic reaction, don’t hesitate to call 911 and use an EpiPen if you have it. Any kind of wheezing, coughing, throat tightness, dizziness, light-headedness and chest pain needs to be taken very seriously and can escalate quickly to being unable to breathe at all or the heart stopping completely.
Climate change is affecting the range and intensity of insect populations as warmer temperatures allow them to multiply faster and live farther north. It’s a good idea to stay educated on some of the more insidious creatures (like the Lone Star tick) and take appropriate measures around your house by keeping tick removal kits and natural insect repellents, and by removing some underbrush that is close to your home.
Many pests such as rodents, ticks, fleas, flies, ants, pill bugs, and cockroaches love dark, shrubby places. Instead, plant things that these insects hate, such as mint, rosemary, fleabane, daisy, chrysanthemums, and pennyroyal. For more information about controlling other insect pests naturally, read our guide to Natural Insect Pest Control.