A Bite From This Smoky Mountain Tick Could Give You Food Allergies

a lone star tick and fontana lake in the smoky mountains

A bite from The Lone Star Tick, named for the single white dot on it's back, may result in a disease called AGS in some humans (photos by StevenStarr73 & epantha/iStockPhoto.com)

Meet the Lone Star Tick – A tick found in and around the Smoky Mountains whose bite might trigger food allergies in humans

I can testify that Alpha-Gal Syndrome, or AGS, is real. My father lost his ability to eat beef following a tick bite. Also, this particular tick can be found in the Smoky Mountains.

There is a tick in the Smoky Mountains whose bite can cause a food allergy that essentially makes it difficult for people to eat mammal food products. 

Lone Star Tick is found throughout the eastern, southeastern and south-central United States (photo by Kasey Decker/iStockPhoto.com)

What is Alpha Gal Syndrome? 

Per Yale Medicine, Alpha-gal Syndrome is an allergic condition. It’s triggered by a sugar found in the tissues of all mammals except humans and other primates. When people who are allergic to Alpha-gal eat beef, pork, lamb, or meat from other mammals. Importantly, dairy products can also cause a reaction, as well as collagen or gelatins derived from mammals. The syndrome can cause an array of symptoms like rash, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Per my dad, who loved cooking and eating red meat for most of his life, it’s a real pain in the butt. 

“It is one of those stranger-than-fiction kinda medical stories,” Dr. Cosby Stone Jr., assistant professor of Vanderbilt Allergy and Immunology told “WATE” last year. “I don’t like conspiracy theories. But this is like the time when the conspiracy theory came true. And the tick bite turns you into someone that’s allergic to the food.”

What causes AGS? Can it go away?

Say hello to the Lone Star Tick. The Lone Star is named for the white spot on the back of the adult female – not because it’s from Texas. Is found throughout the eastern, southeastern and south-central states. The Centers for Disease Control says the saliva from the ticks can be irritating. That said, redness and discomfort at a bite site do not necessarily indicate an infection.

It should be noted that while the lone star’s bite can cause AGS or another rash illness known as STARI, it does not carry Lyme Disease. That disease requires a bite from the Blacklegged Tick.

The CDC also says that over time the symptoms can lessen or disappear if you manage to avoid another tick bite. Some people can return to their red meat-eating lifestyle eventually. 

A tick on a finger in the woods
Some tick bites occur in the backyard while raking leaves or mowing (photo by MakroBetz/shutterstock.com)

How My Dad Got AGS 

Dad thinks it happened 12 years ago at his home in North Carolina. He got a tick bite while raking leaves that did not heal for quite some time. However, Dad didn’t get diagnosed with AGS for several years, which is a common occurrence. AGS will manifest three to six hours after eating. However, it can be hard to diagnose and often gets confused with IBS. He had been eating red meat for nearly 60 years and had to give it up. 

In Dad’s case, beef has the strongest reaction – we won’t discuss details – but pork doesn’t seem to bother him. I asked about venison or other mammal meat. But he said he hasn’t experimented with squirrels or bears or anything else for a while. 

A woman applies mosquito repellent
Tick repellent, staying on trails and wearing darker colors may help prevent tick bites (photo by encierro/shutterstock.com)

What To Look Out For 

Lone Star ticks like woodlands with dense undergrowth and will frequently be found around animal resting areas. They will attach to animals. So if you’ve got your dogs with you – on the dog-approved trails – be a little extra vigilant.

The CDC recommends tick-repellant spray or clothing and avoiding woody or brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. It also says you should check your clothing, gear and pets for ticks shortly after coming indoors. I was always taught to avoid white clothing in the woods because ticks like white. Happily, a Bing search backed me up on that. Dark clothing is better for tick avoidance. 

Photographer on a Trail in a Wooded Area
After being outdoors, check for ticks and shower as soon as possible (photo by Kim Grayson/TheSmokies.com)

Does Showering Help?

According to the CDC, showering less than two hours after leaving the outdoors greatly reduces the risk of tick-borne diseases. A full body check is also recommended, though I was always taught to examine the hairiest areas first. Pits, head and you know. 

But that doesn’t mean the creepy crawlers will stick to the hairy places. Last year, after a day in the mountains I came home exhausted and thought I’d get my shower in the morning. I woke up to a funny sensation in my ear. After a second of searching, I pulled out a tick. However, I did not stop to see if it had a white spot on its back. I was in the shower almost faster than I could get my PJs off. I have since learned that inside the ears – and the belly button – are tick checkpoints. Nobody ever warned me about those. 

It seems like a wild tale that a single bite from a tiny tick could alter your body chemistry. But science – and my dad – confirm that this isn’t some crazy conspiracy theory. A bite from the Lone Star Tick can make you allergic to a food – mammal meat – that you’ve been eating all your life. In the case of my dad, it was about 60 years. There are worse things you could get from a tick bite, I suppose, but it’s best to take precautions before and after you go into the mountains. 

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