Summer is prime tick season, and as of 2013, Lyme disease was the most common illness associated with tick bites in the United States. Lyme disease is an infection that affects several body systems, including the immune system. It’s caused by bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted to humans by a bite form an infected deer tick. Borrelia burgdorferi can affect immune system function and has been associated with the development of food sensitivities and allergy. Another tick, the Lone Star tick, kills Borrelia burgdorferi with saliva from its bite. However, the Lone Star tick bite has also been associated with creating an allergy to red meat after being infected.
Lyme Disease and Mast Cell Activation
Although Lyme Disease is one of the most notable illnesses in the United States, about 95 percent of all cases occur in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest. In 2013, states reported 27,203 confirmed cases and 9,104 probable cases of Lyme Disease to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But estimates suggest that over 100,00 cases of Lyme Disease occur each year. The common symptoms of Lyme disease mimic many other illnesses, making it hard to diagnose, particularly if the individual does not know they’ve come in contact with a deer tick. Lyme Disease can affect any organ, including the heart, brain and nervous system, muscles and joints. Many times, people are misdiagnosed due to the vague symptoms of Lyme Disease. But one illness, Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, can also mimic and create food insensitivity, allergy and even anaphylaxis.
Immunoglobulin E (IgE) are antibodies present in the body as part of the immune system and play a key role in allergic reaction. They react by entering cells and binding to proteins when foreign substances are introduced. The process causes histamine to be released, which results in inflammation, itchiness, hives and other symptoms of allergy. Borrelia burgdorferi, introduced by the deer tick bite, causes IgE to attack mast cells, which “degranulate,” causing symptoms of allergy. This degranulation of mast cells can also lead to sensitivities to food, and food allergy.
Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) occurs when mast cells, which are present in the skin, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems, become damaged when IgE antibodies attack. What’s different about MCAS from food allergies is that various substances, rather than only food, can cause the overactive immune response.
There is no test to figure out whether a person who has Lyme Disease will develop food sensitives, food allergies, MCAS or a host of other illnesses that can affect other organs or body systems.
Lone Star Tick and Allergy to Red Meat
Found most commonly in the central-south, southeastern and eastern United States, the Lone Star tick presents symptoms very similar to Lyme Disease. But the rash from the Lone Strat tick bite is not created by the same bacteria found in Lyme Disease. The source of the rash is unknown.
What scientists are most focused on is the sugar, Alpha-Gal, that the Lone Star tick carries. Alpha-Gal is a sugar that is found in meats like beef, pork and lamb, but not in humans. The bite from the Lone Star tick transmits Alpha-Gal to humans, who then begin producing IgE antibodies. The IgE produced from Alpha-Gal attack red meat the next time the infected person eats it. Alpha-Gal is not found in fish or poultry, so the developed allergy is to mammalian meats only. Currently, no other ticks have been associated with Alpha-Gal and red meat allergy; the only known source is a bite from the Lone Star tick.
Symptoms of Alpha-Gal red meat allergy range from mild to severe and can include: vomiting, itching, hives, swelling and anaphylaxis.
How to Prevent Tick Bites
Ticks can be found anywhere there is grass or wood. However, you are less likely to come across them in suburban areas. Generally, ticks are found in heavily wooded areas and places with a lot of bushes and tall grass. If you frequently go camping, hiking or engage in similar types of outdoor activities, you can take the following steps to help prevent tick bites:
- Use an insecticide that contains DEET on any clothing, gear or exposed skin, and/or Permethrin on clothing or gear.
- Stay in the center of trails and avoid tall grass and bushes.
- Avoid heavily wooded areas.
- Examine all gear and clothes before and after activity.
- Conduct a full body examination of self, children and pets immediately following activity.
- If you, your child or pet comes in contact with ticks, remove them as soon as possible.
- Place clothes in dryer on high heat for at least an hour to kill any ticks you may have missed.
If you have been bitten by a tick and develop rash, pain or respiratory issues, you should go to your doctor for medical examination and treatment to rule out Lyme Disease or Alpha-Gal.
Please share your experiences with Lyme disease, red meat allergy or tick bites in the comment section below.