A patient of ours brought this specimen into our clinic a few weeks ago, as illustrated by my crummy photography:

It was found in a yard within the city limits of Viroqua, WI. Despite the blurry lack of focus, the white mark on its back clearly identifies it as a lone start tick.

The first lone star lick I've seen, Viroqua sits just outside of the northern-most edge of their range. Lone star ticks can transmit the disease ehrlichia (anaplasma) to humans, causing symptoms similar to lyme disease. Headache and fever are hallmarks of this disease. Infection with ehrichia can be quite severe. In addition they can also transmit tularemia and Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). Some controversy exists as to whether or not lone star ticks can transmit lyme disease. The bacteria causing lyme has been isolated from lone star ticks on occasion in the past. The CDC currently denies that it can transmit lyme disease to humans. Though these tick-transmitted diseases are dreaded, none are as life-threatening as an allergy to alpha gal.

Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, also known as “alpha gal,” is a carbohydrate found in mammal meat. The lone star tick's bite has been implicated in the development of allergies to this substance, causing victims to become allergic to meat from mammalian sources: beef, lamb, pork, venison, etc. This allergic reaction can cause anaphylaxis, a very severe, potentially life-threatening reaction where a person's lips, throat, and tongue can swell, blocking his or her airway and dropping blood pressure in addition to developing hives and generalized itching. The unique thing with alpha gal allergies is that the reaction is delayed: rather than occurring immediately with exposure, it occurs 3-6 hours later. Alpha gal is also found in the chemotherapeutic drug cetuximab and in small amounts in dairy.

The good news is that reactivity to alpha gal seems to decrease over time if additional tick bites are avoided. Interestingly, people with an alpha gal allergy seem to tolerate the small amount found in dairy products, or at least do not have severe allergic reactions to them. Also, some only react to beef and not other mammalian meats. There is a non-FDA approved lab test available to check for alpha gal allergy developed by Viracor-IBT Laboratories.

Obviously, my welcome to the lone star tick is facetious, but you can't really blame the tick. I doubt that they're here on a malicious mission to sicken human beings. They're just looking to get fed and propagate their species, same as we are. But be aware of this new disease vector in the neighborhood.

Commins, SP, et al. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2009 February; 123(2): 426–433.

©2013 by Luc Readinger, MD

One of the tragic things I see in my line of work is the lack of personal engagement in one's health. Most people are born relatively healthy. The human organism is very resilient. Resiliency is a good trait, however in the genetic-environmental mismatch we are born into in today's world, this resiliency can allow one to live for quite a long time before developing overt signs or symptoms of disease that the modern lifestyle propagates.

Prior to this modern era (some would argue prior to the advent of agriculture) the program for maintaining one's good health was simple. You were born.  By doing the things you had to do to stay alive - hunting and gathering food and acquiring shelter in the old ways - you engaged in all of the activities you needed to to stay healthy. Most of these activities had to do with food procurement: you had to walk to find plants to gather or hunt animals with primitive tools. Personal engagement in health was unnecessary as it was something you did by virtue of lifestyle. No one needed to check his pedometer to ensure he'd taken 10,000 steps that day or see if he had improved his time on Fran.

Fast forward to 2013 A.D.

We live in a world of daily overconsumption of calorically dense, readily available, micronutrient-poor food or edible food-like substances with hardly any physical activity required. There are persistent demands on one's time to complete sedentary “work,” followed by sedentary entertainment. Couple this with everything designed for comfort and convenience, including fossil fuel burning vehicles requiring virtually no human effort that transport us between activities (sedentarities?) and one can see the vast difference between the environment humans evolved in over the past 2 million years or so and our current neolithic state of existence.

Your genetic code is set to thrive in living the ways of the past

The problem with maintaining health in the modern world is that it takes some effort. You have to go above and beyond the path of least resistance. You have to educate yourself on how to stay healthy. You have to make time to buy and cook whole foods and stay away from the processed stuff. You have to take time out of your busy schedule for physical activity. You should also be keeping stress at bay.

The good news is that by educating yourself and using some discipline to form habits, you can lead an enjoyable lifestyle that will increase your sense of well-being and health. It will take some effort. The alternative is to follow the current path of least resistance, live off of processed food, sit on your butt living a sedentary lifestyle, and gradually feel worse until symptoms of overt disease develop or your physician uncovers an ailment at your routine yearly physical: hypertension, diabetes, heart disease. He or she can then offer you pharmaceutical medications that have side effects and won't cure you. The damage is done at that point but even then it's not too late to change your lifestyle. The choice is yours. Take advantage of your human resiliency before irreversible problems develop and change your lifestyle. If you have already been diagnosed with some medical problems, change your lifestyle anyway. You can still minimize your reliance on pharmaceutical medication. It's all about the food you do or do not put in your mouth and what you do with your body on a daily basis. You're responsible for your health.

©2013 by Luc Readinger, MD