Public health officials say the threat from an aggressive tick is growing as it spreads in the U.S., carrying the potential for serious disease, as well as meat and dairy allergies.

“The most distinctive feature of the lone star ticks may be the starlike white splotch on the backs of adult females that gives them their name,” according to a Consumer Reports article in The Washington Post. “But it’s the baby (larval) lone star ticks that may make a bigger impression. That’s because they tend to hunt in packs, colloquially — and horrifyingly — referred to as ‘tick bombs.’”

That means an encounter with one is likely an encounter with many.

Unlike the blacklegged ticks, which carry Lyme disease, the lone star tick is most apt to transmit viruses and bacteria, “also potentially triggering an enigmatic allergy to red meat,” the article reports.

The ticks have been spreading from the southeastern U.S. north and they are also multiplying quickly. Of the biting ticks, they’re considered the most aggressive, Andrea Egizi, a scientist who studies them and runs the tick-borne disease lab for the Monmouth County Division of Mosquito Control in New Brunswick, New Jersey, told Consumer Reports. People near them are apt to be bitten.

So far, the tick is not common in the West, but it has been spreading rapidly across the country.

What lone star ticks spread

The formal name of the tick, now found in roughly 30 states, is Amblyomma americanum. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that it can cause a rash similar to that of Lyme disease, including exhaustion, fever, headache and muscle and joint pain. The rash is an expanding lesion around the site of the bite and shows up within a week. It can grow to three inches or more.

The CDC adds that no diagnostic test has been developed and it’s not known if antibiotics help when someone has rash-related illness.

More serious is Alpha-gal syndrome, which can occur from a lone star tick bite. Per the CDC, that’s a “potentially life-threatening” allergy to red meat that shows up after someone is exposed to alpha-gal — a carbohydrate in a protein that’s found in some mammals but not natively in humans.

The Arkansas Department of Health explains it this way: “Galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose, or Alpha-gal for short, is a delayed allergy to mammal meat affecting a growing number of the population. This allergy is initially caused by a tick bite. Since the reaction to eating mammal meat is delayed by several hours, the proper diagnosis is often missed or misdiagnosed.”

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People can also become allergic to dairy products.

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The syndrome is typically managed by an allergist or other doctor, the agency reports. “Most health care providers recommend patients with AGS stop eating meat from mammals, such as beef, pork, lamb, venison or rabbit. However, not all patients with AGS have reactions to every ingredient containing alpha-gal.”

Between 2010 and 2022, there were more than 110,000 suspected cases, but because the syndrome is not one that must be reported to the CDC, the public health agency said the true number isn’t known. Most of the reported cases were in adults.

Avoiding lone star and other tick bites

Ticks are problematic because they can carry various illnesses. Some, like Lyme disease or Alpha-gal, may be life-altering. Among advice to prevent tick bites, per the CDC:

  • Stay away from grassy, brushy and wooded areas that may harbor ticks.
  • Keep to the center of trails.
  • Treat clothing and gear with permethrin.
  • Use EPA-designated insect repellent.
  • When you go inside, check clothing, gear and pets for ticks. Then shower and check yourself carefully.
  • Remove any ticks right away.
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