When Mountain Biking Leads To A Meat Allergy: A Cautionary Tale

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.

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