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If You Get Bitten By The Lone Star Tick, Beef Is Not For Dinner

A tiny Texas-themed tick can make you allergic to meat. And one expert says it could be the most common tick in North Texas.

Talk about irony: In the land of barbecue and meat lovers, the pest is called the Lone Star tick. One bite can mean no more beef, lamb, pork and more for years.

Talk about a bad carb

The tick transfers a carbohydrate into the human that’s been bitten. The official name of that carb is alpha-galactose-1, 3-galactose.

Dallas allergist Dr. William Lumry calls it alpha-gal for short.

“Our immune system sees the alpha-gal as a foreign substance and responds, but making a substance known as an antibody to it to protect us from future exposure,” Lumry says.

The next time the person eats meat? There’s an allergic reaction.  

Here’s the problem: A lot of us want to be exposed to beef, lamb and pork. But once you’ve got the alpha-gal antibodies, you’re stuck with fish, chicken and turkey.

The most common tick in North Texas?

Credit Courtney Collins / KERA News
The whole Lone Star tick family -- adults and nymphs (babies).

Doctors say they don’t know how common the alpha-gal allergy is, although various media outlets have reported an increase in cases across the country in recent years. Entomologist Mike Merchant with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension says one thing is certain. The Lone Star tick, or Amblyomma americanum, definitely calls the Lone Star State home.

“The Lone Star tick is probably the most common tick people pick up here in North Texas,” says Merchant. “We see it come into our office more often than any other kind of tick.”

And he’s got the bug bodies to prove it. Glass vials chock full of mom, dad and their babies.

One reason the alpha-gal allergy is so tough to diagnose is reactions happen hours after you eat.

The good news is, if you can avoid another tick bite, Dr. Lumry says you’ll be able to indulge in brisket and celebrate sausage -- eventually. You have to wait five to seven years.

“It gets a bit scary”

Credit Chris Apps
Chris Apps builds bagpipe reeds for a living. He was bitten by a Lone Star tick and can't eat red meat for a while.

Chris Apps, who moved from England to Missouri in 2007, used to enjoy burgers, hot dogs and the occasional juicy steak.

About a year and a half ago, Apps started waking up in the middle of the night with hives. Hives that started as itchy, annoying spots on his thighs quickly spread everywhere.

“If you’ve got a few little bits of hives on you, it’s not necessarily concerning,” Apps says. “But when it starts creeping up the rest of your body, that’s when it gets a bit scary.”

Apps was so scared, he rushed to the hospital, the first of half a dozen trips to the ER for the same baffling symptoms.

Doctors treated him with steroids, but didn’t have a diagnosis. One night, he had a particularly serious reaction that caused his throat to close.

After that, he made an appointment with an allergist who pegged it right away.

He had been bitten by the Lone Star tick.

“It’s really strange that I should move to the country with some of the best beef in the world and not be able to eat it anymore,” Apps jokes.

What about the name?

The Lone Star tick didn’t get its name because it’s found in Texas. The female tick actually has a distinct white mark on her back that looks like a lone star.

Credit CDC
The Lone Star tick gets its name from the star on the back of the female tick.

Where the Lone Star tick is found

Credit CDC
The Lone Star tick isn't only found in Texas.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.