Lone Star Tick Bite: What You Need to Know About This Tiny Pest

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

Photo: Epantha/Getty Images

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. And thankfully, it doesn't carry or pass on Lyme disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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

Appearance and Location

Once mostly confined to the southeastern United States, the lone star tick 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 guys and gals 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 larva progressively smaller than that. Ironically, 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, the CDC says that studies show that their saliva kills the Borrelia bacteria.

While a bite from a lone star tick doesn't cause Lyme disease, it can cause several other diseases, including 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), and bourbon virus, per the CDC. According to TickEncounter, Rocky Mountain spotted fever can also be caused by a lone star tick bite.

But the lone star tick also has another potential, albeit odd, side effect to their bites: 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 mammal blood, 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, as well as 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.

Unfortunately, alpha-gal sugar is in a lot of foods and dishes you may eat all the time, like beef, pork, lamb, dairy, and gelatin. 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 (gelatin is animal-based). "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 you and it's started embedding into your skin, the CDC recommends using fine-tipped tweezers or a tool made specifically to remove ticks to pull the tick out.

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 get it out, leave it and allow the skin to heal, per the CDC.

After you've removed the tick, wash your hands and the bite area with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. Keep an eye out for infection. It's always a good idea to contact your healthcare provider to let them know you've been bitten, and necessary to contact them if you develop a rash or fever, even if it's several weeks following the tick bite.

The CDC also recommends disposing of the tick by flushing it down the toilet, wrapping it in tape, placing it in a sealed bag or container, or putting it in alcohol. Never attempt to crush a tick, especially with your fingers.

How To Know if You Have the Alpha-Gal Allergy

There are a few tricky conundrums regarding a lone star tick bite. Unless a rash appears, many people don't know they were bitten. Add to that, 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, some people have just GI symptoms after eating mammalian meat, which includes beef, pork, lamb, venison—any mammal that you can eat—or after eating dairy (which is 10-20% of those with alpha-gal allergy) or products containing gelatin (which can be found in many supplements and medications). Others break out in hives, or extreme cases, anaphylactic shock.

The allergy might take months to develop after the tick bite. Once the allergy does develop, the actual symptoms can be delayed several hours after ingesting the trigger food. This all contributes to confusion on the actual cause—the bite from the lone star tick.

"There are plenty of stories where patients eat a burger at 6 p.m. and then wake up with anaphylactic shock at midnight," said Dr. Stone. If that happens, seek medical attention ASAP.

When trying to diagnose the root of the allergic symptoms, the same 2020 study in Expert Review of Clinical Immunology states that blood work can be done, looking for 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 is combined with physical activity.

The good news is that other meats can still safely be consumed, including seafood, chicken, turkey, and duck. 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. Another caveat: 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.

First, 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. The CDC recommends using a permethrin-based repellent on clothes and gear. Follow the directions carefully; you can also purchase gear and clothing that are pre-treated with the chemical.

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 the ticks from climbing up your leg under your pants. Wearing lighter-colored clothing will also help make the ticks more visible if they're on your clothing.

After your activity, remove your clothing carefully and immediately wash any dirty clothes in hot water and dry on high heat; if the clothes aren't dirty, toss them into the dryer on high heat for at least 10 minutes to kill any ticks that are on them (longer if the clothes are wet).

The CDC says that showering within two hours of coming in from outdoors 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. And don't forget the head and hair. This goes for yourself, your kids, and your pets.

While it might be tempting to just stay indoors, there are more benefits of being outside than not. Follow the tips for prevention and check your body, clothes, and gear closely after being outdoors. If you do happen to get bit, remove the tick ASAP and contact your healthcare provider. Then be alert for any kind of symptoms, including several months out.

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