The dangers of Lyme disease are well understood, as are most of its health effects. But a relative newcomer, the fleet-footed lone star tick, can also bring life-changing illness.
“Deer Ticks are not the only tick in town,” said Barnstable County entomologist Larry Dapsis, the deer tick project coordinator for the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension.They get the most attention because Lyme disease is so prevalent; its symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash. Left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system, causing lifelong health problems.
Deer ticks have saw-shaped mouth parts and thirst for blood, but at least they’re blind and slow-moving. Not so the lone star tick, so named for the white spot on its back.
“They will chase you. They’re predatory; they’re a hunter,” Dapsis said. A lone star tick that spots you several feet away will come running, generally right up your pant leg. “They’re like little race cars. They can move quite, quite quickly.” If that image didn’t conjure up a scene from a horror movie, this will do the trick. In early August, masses of around 4,000 lone star tick eggs begin to hatch, creating a high concentration of larval ticks less than a millimeter long and hungry for a meal. If you’re unlucky enough to come upon one of these masses, “within minutes, you’ll get 200 or 300 or 400 bites, and those things will burn and itch for a good six weeks,” Dapsis said.
Happily, lone star ticks don’t appear to carry the bacteria that cause Lyme. But about 5 percent of local lone star ticks carry the bacteria that cause southern tick-associated rash illness, or STARI.
“It’s a rash disease with flu-like symptoms that can make you pretty sick,” Dapsis said. But rather than the chronic symptoms of Lyme, these ticks can leave a person with a unique immune system problem.
“The game-changer with this tick — and I know this has happened on Cape Cod — the bite of a lone star tick can trigger an allergy to red meat consumption. It can cause a serious food allergy that can range from hives to pretty serious anaphylaxis,” he said. The illness is known as alpha-gal syndrome or AGS, and is caused by a kind of sugar not normally found in primates. When transferred to people by lone star ticks, the sugar triggers an immune response to certain proteins found in certain meat, including beef, lamb, pork and related products.
“It seems to take time for this allergic response to develop, but once you get it, you could have this for several years, even if you’re off of red meat,” he said. In some patients, the allergy includes rich dairy foods.
“Who can imagine living on Cape Cod and you can’t eat ice cream? That’s just so unfair,” Dapsis said.
In his work educating people about ticks and the illnesses they carry, Dapsis trains the crews of the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project, whose work brings them into prime tick territory every day. “They’re now reporting — and they cover the entire Cape — they’re picking up lone star ticks everywhere,” he said. “They’re not as abundant as deer ticks yet,” but that could change soon. In eastern Long Island, lone star tick numbers are very high, and it’s beginning to harm the tourism industry, he said. Once found only in Central and South America, lone star ticks have steadily expanded their range, possibly as a result of factors including climate change. For now, they’re found on Cape Cod locally, not even in Plymouth or other spots just over the bridges.
The good news? The same measures that prevent Lyme and illnesses borne by deer ticks also work on lone star ticks.
“Permethrin-treated clothing and footwear, that’s number one,” Dapsis said. Available at local garden centers and online, permethrin is sprayed on outdoor clothing and shoes — think about your gardening or hiking outfits — and allowed to dry. It remains active even through several washings.
“It will kill those ticks. It doesn’t just repel them,” he said. While tick checks, light-colored clothing and tucking pant legs into socks is helpful, the permethrin treatment will reduce a person’s risk by about 90 percent, Dapsis estimated. While some people are reluctant to use any pesticides, “pound for pound, table salt is more toxic to a person than permethrin,” he said.
Learn more at www.CapeCod.gov/ticks.