The “Reverse Zombie" Tick Is Spreading Around America, Causing A Strange Condition As It Goes

The lone star tick can do something very strange to your immune system. Elizabeth Nicodemus / Flickr

James Felton 20 Jun 2017, 22:26

A rare breed of tick that can cause everything from intense itchiness and stomach cramping to difficulty breathing and even death has begun to spread around the USA. As it does, the tick is also spreading something far stranger as it goes: allergies to meat. 

The lone star tick, aka the “reverse zombie" tick, makes you shy away from meat rather than crave it. One bite from the tick, in fact, and you can develop a life-threatening allergy to a sugar molecule found within red meat.

Once you've been bitten, your immune system can become triggered by the presence of galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (alpha gal) and go into overdrive. So the next time you eat meat from a mammal that produces this sugar (e.g. pork and beef), you may find yourself breaking out in massive hives or going into anaphylactic shock (if you've been bitten that is).

The condition was only recently discovered in 2004 when immunologist Thomas Platts-Mills found that a group of cancer patients were all suffering from the same symptoms, Wired reports.

The patients were all on the same drug – cetuximab – but those living in the southeast were 10 times more likely to report symptoms such as itching, swelling, and drops in blood pressure. This was quite strange, as you wouldn't expect symptoms to be so area-specific.

Lone star ticks are identified by the distinctive marking on their backs. Wikimedia Commons/Sam Droege

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