While the term “Alpha-gal” might sound intriguing, it refers to the galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose sugar molecule, which can surprisingly make you allergic to meat.
This molecule is transmitted through the bite of the Lone Star tick, identifiable by its unique star-shaped marking.
Recent research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has highlighted a significant rise in suspected U.S. cases since 2010, even in states not traditionally known as habitats for these ticks.
When bitten by the Lone Star tick, it alters the body’s immune response.
Cosby Stone, an allergy and immunology expert at Vanderbilt University, describes the process: “Imagine strolling in the woods. A tick, having recently feasted on mammal blood and now carrying alpha-gal, bites you. This triggers your allergy immune response.”
Is Alpha-gal on The Rise?
Historically concentrated in the southeastern U.S., there’s speculation that the ailment may spread to northern and western zones due to rising temperatures.
While the CDC doesn’t specifically track AGS cases, much of the information about its increasing incidence has been based on observations.
However, a recent study, assessing antibody testing results from the primary U.S. lab handling such tests, reveals a sharp uptick in positive AGS cases over five years – surging from 13,371 in 2017 to 18,885 in 2021. Before its identification a decade ago, the origins of this meat allergy remained enigmatic.
Stone observes, “Alpha-gal awareness is escalating. With the general rise in allergies, it’s plausible that alpha-gal reactions are also climbing.”
Research indicates that increasing temperatures contribute to a surge in plant-based allergies, like those triggered by pollen.
Stone theorizes that advancements in cleanliness could be reducing our naturally-acquired resistance against allergies.
Purvi Parikh from the Allergy and Asthma Network highlighted in a USA Today interview that warming climates are facilitating the northward expansion of tick habitats.
Considering people encounter ticks more often in warmer climates, Stone advises adopting measures to thwart alpha-gal similar to other tick-related maladies: employ insect repellents, treat clothing in advance, and evade tall grasses and bushes.
How can you protect yourself from ticks?
Dressing appropriately and using tick repellents are paramount.
“When traversing grassy or wooded terrains, opt for long-sleeved shirts and pants. Afterward, meticulously inspect your attire and skin for any ticks,” advises Timothy Brewer, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Wearing pale-hued clothes aids in spotting ticks more easily, suggests Bartholomay. Moreover, tucking trousers into socks prevents ticks from sneaking up the legs.
“The common misconception is that ticks plummet from trees, but that’s seldom their modus operandi,” clarifies Michael Reiskind, an entomologist from North Carolina State University.
Given that ticks typically target smaller creatures, they often attach around the waist or lower and then ascend.
Ensure your chosen repellent is specifically formulated to ward off ticks, including those with DEET. The DEET concentration dictates its longevity.
Reiskind advises that a brief exposure might only require a lower DEET percentage, whereas prolonged outdoor activities might necessitate up to 25% or reapplication. Treating clothes with the insecticide permethrin can further deter ticks.
As for post-outdoor tick checks, Reiskind recommends focusing on the ankles or legs if outdoors for a limited duration. However, after extended periods, ticks could be anywhere.
Hence, enlisting a companion to inspect harder-to-view areas like the back and hairline is prudent.
What do you do if you find a tick on yourself?
When removing a tick, it’s crucial to extract the entire creature, encompassing its mouthparts. Utilize tweezers, grasping it securely at the point of attachment, then pull upwards with consistent force, avoiding abrupt movements.
As Bartholomay highlights, refrain from crushing the tick and steer clear of gripping its body, as this might inadvertently reintroduce its innards into your system.
Contrary to some myths, Vaseline, matches, or any other traditional remedies shouldn’t be used for tick removal.
For a detailed guide on tick extraction and post-care, refer to the CDC’s guidelines. They even provide a Tick Bite Bot for further assistance.
Once the tick is removed, disinfect the affected area and cleanse your hands using rubbing alcohol or simply soap and water.
How do you know you’ve been bitten by a tick?
Identifying a tick bite can be challenging, as its appearance often resembles bites from other insects like spiders or mosquitoes, according to Reiskind.
The most definitive indicator of a tick bite is finding the tick itself lodged into your skin, actively feeding.
Ticks don’t just make a quick escape post-bite. They latch on to savor the blood, with adult ticks clinging for a day or two until they’re satiated.
As they feed, they become engorged and are typically detected and removed before they detach voluntarily.
However, nymphs, which are about the size of a poppy seed, are more elusive due to their tiny size and might detach unnoticed.
Typically, a tick bite manifests as a reddish, elevated bump, reminiscent of an intense mosquito bite. The presence of a rash suggests an infection, but its specific appearance doesn’t necessarily pinpoint the exact infection type.
While many recognize the characteristic ‘bull’s eye’ rash linked with Lyme disease, other tick-borne diseases can cause this pattern too.
And it’s worth noting that even without this particular rash—or any rash at all—there’s still a risk of contracting a tick-borne illness.
Hotspots For Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases in The U.S?
Ticks can be found in every corner of the U.S., and depending on the region, they might carry different diseases.
As Flanigan points out, each geographic area has its unique tick-borne disease pattern. For a comprehensive guide on tick types, the diseases they carry, and their locations, he suggests checking the CDC’s dedicated tick website.
The blacklegged tick, notorious for transmitting Lyme disease, has traditionally been concentrated in the northeastern U.S. However, its territory has been expanding, moving southward and westward, making its presence known across the eastern part of the country. This has resulted in a rise in Lyme disease cases, especially in the upper Midwest and the mid-Atlantic regions.
But Lyme disease is just one concern. Various tick species across the country can cause other diseases. For example, Ehrlichiosis is predominant in the southeastern and south-central U.S., reaching as far west as Texas.
So, regardless of where you’re spending your summer, always be on guard. Make it a habit to check yourself for ticks, use repellents, and dress in tick-protective clothing. And if you do find a tick on you, remember to stay calm.