This trail may look harmless, but there could be a hidden danger lurking in the vegetation.

Riders know the obvious dangers of mountain biking, and prepare for them accordingly. I  wear a helmet, gloves, and knee pads on every ride, but there are some hidden dangers riders should be aware of. The woods harbor insects that carry all kinds of diseases. In fact, they are home to one insect whose bite might cause you to become allergic to eating meat from mammals. I had never heard of this strange phenomenon until it happened to a friend and fellow rider.

The culprit

The lone star tick. Photo by Brooke Alexander. Public domain.

The insect in question is the Amblyomma americanum, otherwise known as the lone star tick. According to an article from Popular Science, the tick is named for the white splotch on its back that resembles either a star or the shape of Texas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) indicate the lone star tick is commonly found throughout the Southeast United States. However, lone star ticks reside as far north as Maine, and as far west as Texas and Oklahoma.

The University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter Resource Center states that lone star ticks are most active from April to August. They have an affinity for larger animals, including humans. Lone star ticks hang out on tall grass in shady areas, or at the ends of low hanging branches. They do not carry Lyme disease, however one bite can cause a human to become severely allergic to non-primate mammal meat, such as beef, pork, and lamb.

From tick bite to meat allergy

A lone star tick biting a woman. Photo courtesy of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Public Domain.

As the Mayo Clinic explains on its website, a lone star tick can transmit a sugar molecule known as alpha-gal into the body when it bites a human. The presence of alpha-gal will sometimes trigger an allergic reaction to mammal meat. These allergic reactions can range from mild to severe.

Doctors have yet to discover why some people develop the allergy after the tick bite, while others do not. As of now, there is no cure for the allergy once a person develops it. Though the connection between a lone star tick bite and meat allergies is more commonly known now than it was a decade ago, there are a lot of doctors who have not heard of it. My own primary care physician had no idea there was such a phenomenon until I told him about it, and he then researched it for himself.

While cases of contracting a meat allergy from lone star ticks have grown, they are still rare when compared to other ailments. The New York Times Magazine found that only 1-percent of the population has a meat allergy, and only a fraction of those can be directly traced to a tick bite.

Living with a meat allergy

Steaks like these can be deadly for someone with a severe meat allergy. Photo by Damon Chaney.

In my friend’s case, it took a while for him to be diagnosed with the allergy. He started experiencing the symptoms (hives, difficulty swallowing, and difficulty breathing) in February of 2017. If not for the fact that he had a close relative who had developed the same allergy, he might still be in the dark. His doctor confirmed the allergy in March of 2018 after he experienced two severe reactions in the preceding two months. Today, he is very careful about what he eats, especially when dining out. As other people with food allergies can attest, even trace amounts of red meat can have an adverse effect on the person who suffers from an allergy to it. My friend misses eating hamburgers and steak, but he has adapted well. In fact, his new diet has improved his overall health.

Riders need to take extra precautions when riding in the woods

Riders should protect themselves from more than just the obstacles on the trail. Photo by Bryon Dalton.

The best way to keep yourself from falling prey to the lone star tick’s bite, or any other insects, is to be proactive. Here are some things riders can do to protect themselves, according to the CDC:

  • Cover up, to the extent you can without overheating. I wear tall socks that tuck into the bottom of my knee pads so that my legs are fully covered when I ride.
  • Use insect repellent, preferably one that contains DEET.
  • Check yourself immediately after your ride to make sure you didn’t pick up any unwanted hitchhikers, and shower as quickly as you can.

These simple acts of prevention could save you from a life-altering illness.

Do you or someone who has a meat allergy as a result of a bite from the lone star tick? Please share your story in the comments section below.

# Comments

  • FredCook

    Ticks… hate ’em…

    In addition to Deet, I use Sawyer’s Permethrin to treat clothing.

  • don mau

    I got Lyme disease from mountain biking too. It took years to figure out how to cure it. After going to 7 doctors I gave up on them. How to be successful is by fixing the immune system.
    You can’t cure Lyme/Bartonella by treating the infections. You have to turn the immune system back on that the “Lyme” infections have turned off so they can survive, then the immune system will kick it out.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t want to discount the dangers of Lyme disease. I just found the meat allergy link to ticks very fascinating.

  • jerrynlis23

    Was bitten by a couple ticks approximately 2 1/2 years ago. Had a severe allergic reaction about a month later and was prescribed an epi pen in the ER. I was just diagnosed with Alpha-Gal 4 days ago. It is the allergy to meat that I now have because of the tick bites. I assumed, when I had the severe allergic reaction (severe full body hives, vomiting, loss of control of other bodily fuctions, and fainting) that it was something I had ingested. The Dr. at the ER (my first emergency room visit) did tell me to see an allergist immediately….I did not. He had also asked if I had recently been bitten by a tick but did not elaborate nor did he suggest that I have a blood test to rule out a possible tick borne illness. Still, I should have had enough sense to know that I did in fact need to see an allergist to find out what caused me to become so ill. I ended up having difficulty breathing a few times here and there the past couple years but chalked it up as being a heavy smoker and seasonal allergies. But did feel that something wasn’t right. Had hives a couple more times and had to use my epi pen right before my appointment that I ended up making with an allergist. So glad I chose the one I did. He knew almost immediately that there was a very good possibility I had contracted a condition that was from a tick bite. It was in fact, Alpha-Gal as he suspected. The blood test proved it. No more meat or even soup made with beef broth among other things such as gelatin. Some people even have a problem with milk because it comes from cows! The allergy is to MAMMALIANS. With some people it’s so severe, they can not even be near the smoke from a grill when someone is grilling meat. There is no cure, no allergy shots for it and since it’s quite new to the medical field, no one is sure of the complications that could arise from having the allergy. Some have desensitized to it others never will. It affects some that are bitten and others are fine. Allergic reactions are sporadic. They also happen hours after ingesting meat. (anywhere between 2-6 or longer) Not immediately like with other food allergies. You can have an allergic reaction when exposed to meat or items that were prepared with meat products. So protect yourselves when outdoors. And if you’ve been bitten and end up with hives or extremely ill, see a Dr. ASAP and request a blood test to rule out Alpha-Gal.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds very similar to what my friend went through. Hopefully this article will bring greater awareness to the tick bite/Alpha-Gal link.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for the clarification. I was wondering how long it would be before someone made that comment.

  • Rob K

    Also, use roll a lint brush over your arms and legs after riding to remove any small ticks.

    • Richard Shoop

      That’s a good tip. Thanks.

    • m@frit

      That might work if the tick hasn’t latched-on or if your not particularly hairy. It’s been my experience (2 – 3 tick removals per year) that once they’re attached is takes a deliberate amount of force to remove them.

  • Eli Larson

    A well written cautionary tale.
    A point for the scientifically inclined, as I am a chemistry grad student:
    Gal stands for galactose, which is a commonly consumed sugar. However, most of what our bodies use is Beta-galactose, not the alpha mentioned here. When we encounter alpha, our bodies can react in any number of ways. I’ve never heard of this before, but I’ll definitely have to keep my eyes more peeled than usual when picking off ticks this season.

    • Richard Shoop

      I was wondering what Gal stood for, but didn’t see an explanation in the literature I read. Thanks for explaining it.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for sharing the link. I saw that this was happening in Europe, but did not know it also occurred in Australia.

  • rota.vagus

    It is a good cautionary tale, one that has been in the news for about a year now. Backpacking, hiking and hunting magazines have been following this tick transmitted ailment.

    One other thing… ticks are arachnids not insects.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for your comments and the correction. I have seen this issue getting some traction, but it is not well-known where I live.

  • mitrovskiigi

    Little odd but very efective solution is to wear pantyhose. Sheer nude 15DEN pantyhose is almost invisible but keeps ticks and other small bugs away from your legs. I wear them regulary when riding in coutryside or when hiking and my legs are clean from bytes of every kind. Before I start wearing them I had to work something in tall grass for one afternoon and my legs were red like I painted them. There was not a single milimeter without redness on my legs up to my knees.

    • Jeff Barber

      I wonder if this is effective protection against poison ivy / poison oak…

    • jerrynlis23

      Odd…? Well, I think it’s a great idea, Male or female! Sure beats being miserably ate up by insects or arachnids (referring to all the corrections regarding ticks) ????
      And worse yet, contracting a serious illness.
      Awesome idea, I say. Thanks for the tip.

    • m@frit

      That should make it more socially acceptable for men to wear pantyhose.

  • BBelfield

    So the allergy is only non-primate mammals? Does that mean people and apes are still on the menu? Phewww

  • m@frit

    I know 6 people who have gotten this allergy here in NC, including a husband and wife who got it about a year apart from ticks in different states. One guy out almost passed out while driving home after eating a hamburger for lunch. He doesn’t like seafood, so basically eats chicken every day.

  • baguioj

    I also was bit and suffered the symptoms 1 1/2 years ago riding in NW Arkansas. My allergist mentioned cases where the symptoms may dissipate (mileage may vary). It was a tough spell especially living In Memphis and all the pork bbq offerings. I am fortunate enough to be able to eat pork, bacon and pork bbq after a year and not suffer the side effects. However, I still am allergic to beef and break out in hives. I now carry Benadryl and an epi-pen

    Joe B.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for the comment. You are very fortunate. My friend can’t eat any of it without having a severe reaction.

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