When Dr. Patrick Garrett of Newton returned from a hike last week, he found an unwanted passenger on his body — a Lone Star tick.
He had been hiking in the Sand Hills near Buhler.
"I go on hikes about every weekend," Garrett said. "It was infested with ticks. It was amazing. I have hiked my entire life and never seen this many ticks."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Lone Star tick is a very aggressive tick that bites humans. The adult female is distinguished by a white dot or “lone star” on her back. Lone star tick saliva can be irritating; redness and discomfort at a bite site do not necessarily indicate an infection. The nymph and adult females most frequently bite humans and transmit disease.
The lone star tick does not transmit Lyme disease - however, in some cases it can cause a condition called alpha-gal syndrome, which makes a human allergic to red meat. Sensitivity to red meat that can result in symptoms such as itching, hives, swollen lips and breathing problems. The reaction can sometimes be life-threatening.
"Out of all the ticks out there, this is one of the better ones to get healthwise because it makes you a vegan," Garrett joked.
"This can be fairly serious," said Skip Cowan. "It can lead to a severe reaction and anaphylactic shock."
Those who suffer a reaction to meat can break out in hives, have swelling of the tongue, find it hard to breathe or go into shock — and it is reported that those symptoms often happen several hours after eating, making detection difficult.
Tick bites are not something tracked by the health department, though diseases resulting from those bites could be.
According to the National Institute of Health, the prevalence of allergy to alpha-gal, or “alpha-gal syndrome” is not known. Researchers have observed that it occurs mostly in people living in the Southeast region of the United States and certain areas of New York, New Jersey and New England. This distribution may occur because most people with an allergy to alpha-gal, including all six participants evaluated at NIH, have a history of bites from juvenile Lone Star ticks.
Garrett said he has been bitten by a Lone Star before, however, he did not end up with the alpha-gal allergy at that time.
"A couple of days (after a hike) I was thinking 'I don't remember a mole there,' and it was a tick that we pulled off," Garrett said. "It was a Lone Star. It had probably sent the enzyme or protein in, but it did not make me allergic. I am mostly vegan anyway, but I still eat meat. It has not made me violently ill like it has for other people."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, permethrin clothing treatment kills ticks and deet-based skin repellent helps repel them.
"Prevention is the same thing as with ticks in general," Cowan said. "When you go to wooded areas. Wear light, long panths and long sleeves. Cover yourself as much as you can and wear repellant."