- Lone Star ticks spread an allergy to red meat and products derived from animals.
- People who develop this allergy may also become more likely to develop heart disease, according to a new study.
- Though these ticks have commonly been found in the Southeast, they are spreading north and west as climate gets warmer.
The allergy that people can develop after being bitten by Lone Star ticks already sounded bad enough.
These ticks can spread an allergy to a sugar compound called alpha-galactose, often referred to as an alpha-gal allergy. Because this compound is found in mammal meat, people often refer to this as a red meat allergy. Some people with this allergy also react to other products from mammals – including dairy, animal byproducts that appear in gel-cap pills, and medications containing antibodies derived from animals.
Now a recent study from researchers at the University of Virginia found that people who developed this allergy have a higher risk for heart disease.
These are still preliminary findings, but they imply the possibility that negative health effects spread by these ticks may be even more widespread than previously thought.
A hidden heart risk
It’s important to understand one of the puzzling aspects of this red meat allergy in order to understand why the findings of the new study will be so important to follow up on.
In a normal allergy, if someone’s body is sensitised to a substance, they will react to it. This is the case for a number of people with alpha-gal allergies – if they eat a burger or anything else with alpha-gal in it, they will later have a severe reaction, including potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock. But a number of people who are sensitised to alpha-gal don’t have allergic symptoms.
No one understands why. (We’ll return to why this is so significant.)
For the new study, researchers examined the heart health of 118 patients – not a big number for a study like this, which is one of the reasons more research on the topic is needed.
About 26% of the group was sensitive to alpha-gal. These patients had an average of about 30% more plaque built up around their hearts, which can narrow arteries and lead to a heart attack or stroke. The plaque in these patients was also more likely to be formed in a way that can increase heart disease risk, according to the study.
This means that being sensitive to alpha-gal might indicate a person is significantly more likely to develop heart disease, even if they don’t have allergic reactions after eating meat.
This is significant because a lot more people may be sensitive to alpha-gal than are aware of it. Around 20% of people in Central Virginia and the Southeast may have some alpha-gal sensitivity without showing signs of the meat allergy, according to a UVA news release.
In other words, even the people who escape the meat allergy symptoms might be more likely to suffer from heart disease. This may be because they continue to eat meat thinking there’s no reason to avoid it, but that alpha-gal sensitivity in their bodies makes them react more poorly to it. More research is needed to know for sure.
But either way, this is more indication that tick bites are even more harmful than most people think.
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