Lone Star Tick Bite: What You Need to Know

A bite from this eight-legged bloodsucker might mean the end of dining on steak and burgers—at least for a while.

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You probably already know that certain types of ticks pose a threat to your health, the most familiar being Lyme disease due to the bite of a deer tick or black-legged tick.

But there's a rising star in the tick world: the lone star tick. Thankfully, it doesn't carry or pass on Lyme disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, a bite from the lone star tick could leave you with other illnesses, including a potentially dangerous allergy to meat. Here are some facts you need to know about this troublemaker.

Appearance and Location

Once mostly confined to the southeastern United States, the lone star tick has stretched its boundaries, increasing in numbers and showing up from central Texas and Oklahoma, eastward across the southern states, and up the Atlantic coast as far north as Maine, according to the CDC.

They're called "lone star" ticks due to the adult female's single white spot on her brown body; males don't have the white spot. The lone star tick can bite—or more accurately, "feed off"—its victims in every stage of its development: larva, nymph, and adult.

According to the University of Rhode Island's (URI) TickEncounter Resource Center, these little arachnids move fast, making them hard to spot.

Their size also makes them difficult to see. According to the National Pest Management Association, a female adult lone star tick is the largest in the lone star tick family, measuring 1/8 inch long. The male is slightly smaller, and the nymphs and larvae progressively smaller than that.

You might not have a problem seeing the larvae, even though they're the smallest ones. According to TickEncounter, they can latch on by the hundreds (in which case, they suggest using duct tape or some other very sticky tape to get them off). The good news is that the larvae don't carry disease.

According to TickEncounter, the lone star tick is most active from April through mid-August. They like to hang out in wooded areas with dense undergrowth, especially where there are animal resting areas so they can feed off them.

What Happens When a Lone Star Tick Bites

According to the CDC, the lone star tick doesn't carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi; in fact, studies show that their saliva kills the Borrelia bacteria.

A lone star tick bite can cause several other diseases, however, according to TickEncounter and the CDC. These include:

  • Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI), an illness that has a rash that can be mistaken for Lyme disease)
  • Heartland virus
  • Monocytic ehrlichiosis (a rare infectious disease)
  • Bourbon virus
  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

Bites from lone star ticks also have another potential side effect: They can create allergies to meat in humans.

Here's how it happens: Just like other ticks, the lone star tick likes to feed on the blood of mammals, like deer and cows, explained Cosby Stone, MD, MPH, a clinical research fellow in allergy and immunology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

When a tick bites one of these animals, the tick can pick up a sugar called alpha-gal.

When the tick then bites a human, the germs from the bite and the alpha-gal are transmitted to the human host, triggering a person's immune system to make antibodies to the alpha-gal. "Because you don't make this sugar in your body, it's recognized as something foreign, and you can become allergic to it," said Dr. Stone. The result: an alpha-gal allergy.

Alpha-gal sugar is in a lot of foods and dishes you may eat frequently, like beef, pork, lamb, dairy, and gelatin (which is an animal-based product). If you acquire this allergy, you'll react when you eat a steak and possibly when you drink a glass of milk.

For some people, gelatin in medications causes those antibodies to kick in and cause distress. "This can create a lot of trouble for people," said Dr. Stone.

What To Do if You're Bitten

If you find a lone star tick on your body and it's started embedding into your skin, here are the steps you should follow, according to the CDC:

  1. Use fine-tipped tweezers or a tool made specifically to remove ticks.
  2. Grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as you can and apply steady, firm pressure to pull it straight out. Do not twist or wiggle it, as this is more likely to result in breaking the tick's body off from its mouth, leaving the mouth inside the skin. If it does break off, attempt to remove the mouth with the tweezers. If you can't remove it, the CDC recommends leaving it alone and allowing the skin to heal.
  3. Dispose of the tick by flushing it down the toilet, wrapping it in tape, placing it in a sealed bag, or putting it in rubbing alcohol. Never attempt to crush a tick, especially with your fingers.
  4. After you've removed and disposed of the tick, wash your hands and the area around the bite with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.
  5. Keep an eye out for signs of infection. It's important to contact a healthcare provider if you develop a rash or a fever, even if it's been several weeks since you were bitten by the tick.

How To Know if You Have the Alpha-Gal Allergy

Unless a rash appears, many people don't know they were bitten. The symptoms of alpha-gal allergy are consistently inconsistent and can take weeks to show up, making diagnosis difficult.

According to a 2020 study published in the journal Expert Review of Clinical Immunology, symptoms of an alpha-gal allergy are varied, and included:

  • Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms after eating mammalian meat (i.e. beef, pork, lamb, and venison)
  • GI symptoms after eating dairy products (which affects 10-20% of those with alpha-gal allergy)
  • GI symptoms after consuming products containing gelatin
  • Others symptoms of an allergic reaction after consuming animal products, such as breaking out in hives or, in extreme cases, experiencing anaphylactic shock

The allergy might take months to develop after the tick bite. Once the allergy develops, the actual symptoms can be delayed several hours after ingesting the trigger food.

It may not always be clear that the allergy can be traced back to a tick bite. Dr. Stone said it is possible to eat a burger at 6 p.m. and then wake up with severe symptoms at midnight. If that happens, especially if you are experiencing symptoms of anaphylaxis, seek medical attention immediately.

When trying to diagnose the root of the allergic symptoms, the same 2020 study in Expert Review of Clinical Immunology states that bloodwork can be done to identify the alpha-gal IgE antibody, which would suggest the allergy.

Food challenge tests can also be done under the watchful eye of medical personnel who would be there in case of anaphylactic shock.

Interestingly, these study authors also state that in some people, allergic reactions happen when the offending food is ingested with alcohol or combined with physical activity.

The good news is that you can still eat poultry and fish safely. And the allergy can resolve on its own over time if the off-limit foods are avoided for several years and as long as another lone star tick bite doesn't occur.

According to these researchers, if dairy isn't a problem, then gelatin most likely isn't either.

Tick Bite Prevention

While you can't always be 100% successful at preventing tick bites, there are a few things you can do to help prevent being their next feast:

Before going outside:

  • Know where the ticks tend to hang out. If you're in a woodsy or brushy area with tall grass, you can assume there are probably ticks living there.
  • Use a permethrin-based repellent on clothes and gear, per the CDC, and follow directions carefully; you can also purchase gear and clothing that are pre-treated with this repellent.
  • Wear long pants when you're out hiking or working in the yard and tuck your pant legs into your socks; this will help prevent ticks from climbing up your leg under your pants; wearing lighter-colored clothing will also make the ticks more visible if they're on your clothing.

After coming inside:

  • After your activity, remove clothing carefully and immediately wash it in hot water and dry on high heat.
  • Shower within two hours of coming inside. The CDC says that has been shown to decrease the risk of illness from ticks. It's also a good time to perform a tick check.
  • When doing a tick check, be sure to check the crevices of the body, including the armpits, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, between the legs, around the waist, and behind the knees. Also check your scalp and your hair. This goes for yourself, your kids, and your pets if they were outside with you.

A Quick Review

The lone star tick is increasing its range across the United States. While this type of tick does not cause Lyme disease, it can potentially trigger an allergy to meat and dairy products in some people.

Always check your body, clothes, and gear closely after being outdoors. If you happen to get bit, remove the tick immediately and be alert for symptoms. Contact a healthcare provider right away if you develop a rash, a fever, or a severe allergic reaction.

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