ST. PAUL — To most, the Lone Star tick might just seem like another pesky insect. But this tick, which has had scattered sightings across Minnesota, is linked to a rare allergy to red meats and carries side effects of rash with hives, sudden respiratory problems and more.
"There's just a handful of studies that have been published so we're not sure how much of a thing this is or if there's other ways you can get meat allergies. There's a lot of questions yet," said Dave Neitzel, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health who has been working with tick-transmitted diseases since 1985.
The condition, which has only been diagnosed within the past seven years or so, is a reaction to agents in the tick's saliva. But not everyone who is bitten by the tick contracts the allergy. According to Neitzel, those who get sick do not have antibodies against proteins in the tick's saliva.
While Neitzel says the Lone Star tick is on the department's radar, there have been only a few dozen scattered reports of the insect in Minnesota in the past five to 10 years. According to Laura Cronquist, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health, North Dakota has had no official reports of the tick in the state.
"We're watching for them, but we're not overly concerned about them. There's no reason to believe there are established populations in North Dakota," she said.
It's little wonder that the insect is uncommon in the region. The insect is most often found in the southeastern United States, where several thousand cases have been identified. In Minnesota however, the number of people with the allergy is relatively uncertain, as doctors are not obligated to report allergies to the states, making keeping track of the allergy difficult.
"They're a rare tick this far north," said Neitzel. "We don't know how established they are in the state."
"All we ever get are individual records of this particular tick and it's hard to know from that if they're established or not," he said.
Other tick-borne diseases, Lyme disease and anaplasmosis, are more prevalent in Minnesota. Each year, the state sees upward of 1,000 cases of Lyme disease, the most prevalent tick-borne illness, and up to 700 cases of anaplasmosis, the second most common. In contrast to these more well-studied diseases, discussion of the Lone Star tick and the alpha-gal meat allergy started only within the past five years.
"There's a lot we don't know about the allergy," Neitzel said. "It's too early to really say anything definitive."
He said research is specifically needed to determine whether other species of ticks can spread the allergy and whether animals are also affected by the allergy.
This time of year, Neitzel and the Minnesota Department of Health recommend taking steps to prevent tick bites from any species.
"We're at peak tick season right now. Most of the tick feeding activity is from mid-May through mid-July, and this is the time of year for people to protect themselves against all species of ticks," said Neitzel.
The best way to ward off ticks is to wear insect repellents containing DEET or, for stronger protection, wearing permethrin. Permethrin is sprayed on clothes and protects against ticks for weeks after application, even after clothes are washed.
Whatever the method of repellent used is, one of the most important things to do is check for ticks after being in wooded or tick-prone areas. The sooner ticks are removed from the body, the less likely they are to transmit diseases, said Neitzel.