My friend told me recently about a tick bite that caused people to become allergic to eating meat. Let’s take a moment to consider the irony of a meat-allergy-causing tick being associated with the Lone Star state of Texas. I’m fascinated with all things tick borne, having written two books on them recently. So I went searching.
CBS news carried the story in May, 2018. Evidently being bitten by the Lone Star tick can make you reactive to alpha-gal, which is found in beef, lamb, venison, and pork. Giving all the vegans out there a new catchphrase, “I’m just allergic to meat.”
But reading through the news stories, I was struck that many of these people weren’t in “Lone Star territory” but much further north. While they overlap, I typically think of myself as living in “Lyme country” while the Southeastern U.S. is more “Lone Star territory.” So is this an issue only found in Lone Star Ticks, or is it a tick issue we should be worried about elsewhere?
The way that researchers discovered the Lone Star/meat allergy connection is pretty lucky. They were researching the connection between a drug (cetuximab) and delayed meat allergy, when: “three members of our group developed red meat allergy and each one distinctly remembered being bitten by ticks.” So they made the connection and the news media has run with it. But in the same article, the researchers note that ticks in Europe and Australia, not the Lone Star, can also make people allergic to meat. Of all the ticks, they exclude the Lyme tick because “bites of Ixodes scapularis that transmit Lyme disease are not associated with itching.” Really? That seems like a pretty broad statement about something like a tick bite. John Hopkins (which has been widely repeated across the web) describes the bite of a Lyme tick as “much less itchy than poison ivy.” Another study says that 17% of people bitten experienced itching from Lyme ticks. It goes on to say that people who itch more are less likely to develop Lyme (an interesting benefit).
A recent study in Sweden tracing the connection between Lyme and meat allergy found something strange. First, a lot of Swedish people are allergic to meat (around 15%). Far more than anything the U.S. has reported. So meat allergy likely follows a spectrum of reaction rather than just the few extreme cases the U.S. media has reported. Second, Lyme and meat allergy are connected, but Lyme ticks don’t necessarily cause meat allergy. People who are reactive to Lyme (big rash) are also more likely to be reactive to meat (more anti-meat antibodies).
The reason for the tick to pass on or not pass on meat allergy may be because the tick itself may or may not be reacting to meat. Other researchers found antibodies to meat in the guts of the ticks. It may be that the tick, regardless of species, is just acting like a “dirty needle” and passing on whatever it’s been exposed to itself. While we can all cringe at the thought, we are “sharing unprotected body fluids” with the little parasites. So anything they’ve been exposed to, bacteria, virus, or other, we get exposed to. And maybe, if our biting tick is allergic to meat, we can pick that up along the way?
Just so those of us in Lyme territory can get some company in our misery, it’s pretty clear that what we would generally call Lyme can be passed by the Lone Star tick. Except the CDC is determined to call that something different in an effort to…I’m not sure what the point is of calling it “Master’s disease.” It’s not technically Lyme because that is only one species officially. But Lone Star ticks carry other species and many of the co-infections.
If this feels confusing, it’s because it is. I wrote two books to help explain it further. The first lays out the arguments for and against Chronic Lyme (spoiler: both sides are right). The second book is for my patients and lays out why you should never feel worse while getting Lyme treatment, as well as twenty treatments we’re not currently using.