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Lone star ticks need warm, humid environments to survive. Little said recent above-average temperatures combined with habitat change could be fueling the increase. When there are more shrubby plants and ample leaf litter, she said, not only do deer have more to eat, but there are more places for ticks to live and survive.
One way people can protect themselves from ticks, Little said, is to put pets on tick-control medicine so they can’t bring the ticks into the home or close to people.
“Every dog should be on tick control. Every dog, every month, all year long,” she said. “Having the dog treated (for ticks) will really protect the whole family.”
The lone star tick is an aggressive species. Instead of waiting for its host to walk by like most tick species, this one will actively pursue it. Females can lay up to 7,000 eggs at a time, and the lone star is the only tick in the United States that can bite humans when it’s still a larva, Little said.
That’s how Platts-Mills got the alpha-gal allergy himself. In 2007, after hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, he found nearly 200 lone star larvae on his leg after they burrowed through his sock. He discovered his allergy that year when he broke out in hives after eating lamb at a conference in London.
For 16-year-old high school student Austin Lemieux of Bee Springs, Ky., adjustment to his alpha-gal allergy has been hard. His first reactions started a year ago, when he broke out in hives during football practice.
One of the biggest changes was at lunchtime. If his school is serving only burgers or hot dogs, Lemieux could end up eating just an apple before football practice. At home there’s been an equally drastic change.
“It has changed our whole family,” said Shauna Hensley Gravil, Lemieux’s mother. “I have to be careful with how I cook, and there have been a few times he accidentally has eaten something he shouldn’t have, and had a reaction.”
Reactions typically occur three to four hours after exposure, unusual for most food allergies. Some people who carry the antibody show no symptoms, while some get hives and others even go into anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening allergic reaction that can cause the throat to swell shut. This danger is heightened by the fact that the reaction is delayed.
“We think it’s perfectly possible that people have died,” Platts-Mills said. “Certainly people living on their own, especially at night. Nobody would know what happened. Within a few hours after death, you don’t see any signs of the hives.”
Jeff Conley of Hollywood, Md., an avid deer hunter, nearly died after his first reaction to meat in October 2011. Conley, 43, said an ER doctor told him he was 15 to 20 minutes away from death before he was administered an adrenaline shot. Conley, who thinks he was bit by a tick during a hunting trip, now has trouble enjoying the sport, but his discovery of the alpha-gal allergy came as a relief.
“I was just so glad not to be sick anymore,” he said. “It took me nine months to figure out what was going on. There were times I thought I was having a heart attack, or that I was having a stroke. I feel like it took 10 years off my life because I was so stressed out all the time.”
Platts-Mills said people have been coming forward in recent years, since the connection has been discovered. Some have lived for decades with the allergy without knowing what it was. Some cases were developed more recently as the lone star tick has continued to spread across the country. Platts-Mills estimates that 10 percent of people in the rural Southern United States carry the antibody and that 1 percent have a reaction. While researchers still don’t know exactly what causes the allergy, he is finishing a grant proposal to get funding for more research on the topic.
Chris Richey hopes research will provide some answers or eventually lead to the development of a treatment.
“This is the allergy from hell,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”