On May 1, 2018, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that between 2004 and 2016, tickborne illnesses more than doubled. And because of what researchers are linking to climate change, there’s no sign of the trend slowing down.
In fact, ticks with the ability to transmit disease to people are invading more areas than ever before. But, Lyme disease and its symptoms are not the only thing you need to watch for… Lone star ticks carrying the lesser known “alpha-gal” are on the rise.
Ticked Off: Peter Coughlin’s Mystery Illness
Peter Coughlin was in his sophomore year at James Madison University in northern Virginia when he was overcome by an unexplained illness. Around bedtime and throughout his sleep, Coughlin would wake up with some aggressive symptoms:
- Full-body chills
- Extreme fevers
- Excessive vomiting
Although he lived through and dealt with these mystery symptoms for some time, he finally payed his doctor a visit. After sitting through a bunch of allergy tests, writes Zoya Teirstein in a cover story for Grist, “[the doctor] gave him a strong antihistamine and an EpiPen and sent him home.”
Still, Peter couldn’t kick the symptoms. He even avidly recorded everything he was putting into his body and did so for an entire year. One thing he noticed early on was that the hives, chills, high temperatures, and vomiting would occur – without fail – after one thing.
“I essentially spent a week proving my point,” says Coughling. “I’d eat a bunch of red meat, [primarily pork,] and go through a series of pretty severe reactions.”
How Lone Star Ticks Infected Coughlin with Alpha-Gal
Not unlike people with fibromyalgia, another chronic condition that can be challenging to pin down, Coughlin set out to find the cause of his symptoms. After much research, one condition stood out: alpha-gal allergy.
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Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (put more simply as alpha-gal or ‘red meat allergy’) is an allergy that most people develop during adulthood. In and of itself, alpha-gal is a carbohydrate in cows, sheep, pigs, and sometimes poultry – foods that most humans consume. Because ticks often travel and feed on those alpha-gal-filled animals, and then bite humans, scientists argue that they might be the only cause of alpha-gal allergy.
As defined by Teirstein, “[Alpha-gal allergy is] a severe, delayed-reaction immune response, which means it hits hours after someone who suffers from the allergy eats meat.”
Comparing his symptoms to those of an alpha-gal allergy led Coughlin to believe he found what triggered the root cause of his unsettling condition:
- Runny nose, congestion
What confirmed Coughlin’s suspicion, however, was a hike across the Blue Ridge Mountains at his university. “I kept pulling ticks off me,” he says. Lone star ticks.
Over the last couple of years, Coughlin’s symptoms have subsided. Yes, he did avoid eating meat or simply remedied the allergic reactions with Benadryl. But, he’s actually able to eat meat again because, according to Missouri allergist Mark Vandewalker, “alpha-gal can eventually retreat to the point where eating red meat again is possible. Doctors and researchers don’t know, however, how long the antibodies will linger patient to patient.”
How to Spot Lone Star Ticks
The adult female lone star tick (or Ambylomma americanum) looks similar to other ticks, but carries a distinct silvery-white, star-like marking on the center of its back, which can also just look like a dot.
Lone star ticks are indigenous to the eastern, southeastern, and Midwest United States. They can be found in tall grassy and wooded areas. Like other types of ticks, they use questing. All a successful ‘quest’ requires is carbon dioxide or heat, which causes them to stretch their legs and attach themselves to an animal or human passing by or through the tick-infested area.
So, in addition to wear long pants if you’re going on a nature walk, check out this article to protect yourself: 5 Ways to Make Sure You Don’t Get Tick Bites This Summer.
 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). (2018, May 03). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6717e1.htm?s_cid=mm6717e1_x
 Teirstein, Z. (2018, May 02). Meet the tick that’s forcing Americans to give up their meat. Retrieved from https://grist.org/article/lone-star-ticks-are-a-carnivores-nightmare-and-theyre-just-waking-up/
 Steinke, J. W., Platts-Mills, T. A., & Commins, S. P. (2015, March). The alpha-gal story: Lessons learned from connecting the dots. Retrieved May 4, 2018, from https://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(15)00076-7/fulltext
 Alpha-Gal Allergy: Symptoms, Treatment, Causes, and More. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/allergies/alpha-gal
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