Auburn researcher discusses disease threats from tick bites

Published: July 14, 2017
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Summer has arrived, and with the heat comes an increase in tick activity. It’s something many people have come to expect when thinking about spending time outdoors.

“In Lee County and Alabama as a whole, residents are at risk of contracting Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Erhlichiosis, alpha-gal [red meat] allergy or tick paralysis, among others,” said Emily Merritt, an Auburn University research associate in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.

Clint Anderson, a resident of Auburn, was bitten by a Lone Star tick while working outdoors in Auburn in October 2014. The tick bite caused a meat allergy, but Anderson didn’t start showing symptoms until he had an anaphylactic reaction in January 2015.

“Doctors tested food items I came into contact with before my anaphylactic reaction,” said Anderson. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can occur quickly following exposure to the allergen. Reactions can include symptoms such as hives, difficulty breathing, nausea and more.

“I had a second anaphylactic reaction several weeks after my first reaction, and the doctors decided to test me for an allergy caused by a tick bite,” Anderson explained. “My results came back positive for a beef, pork and lamb allergy. This reaction occurs several hours after the consumption of meat and is very difficult to diagnose.”

Meat allergies caused by Lone Star ticks—officially called alpha-gal allergies—can go away over a period of time, but that varies by person and whether or not they have avoided other tick bites. Anderson said his tests have indicated his allergy is receding with time, but still not enough to eat meat.

The School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences has conducted a two-year research program on ticks and tick-borne illnesses, with researchers collecting ticks for a year from all across the state in 105 sites. The ticks were collected once a month at each of the sites. To collect the ticks, they put out dry ice, which sublimed and gave off carbon dioxide, attracting the insects. The researchers would then count the ticks and test them for various illnesses.

“The purpose of the research program was to see which ticks are here, which diseases they were carrying, how they are distributed in nature and what factors contribute to that, such as wildlife animal hosts and human interaction,” said Merritt.
Merritt says taking precautions before going outside is the best way to prevent being exposed to a tick-borne illness.

“So far, the most effective thing we’ve found is an anti-parasite spray called Permethrin,” she said. “You spray your clothes and gear with it before you go outside, and it lasts several weeks.”

“If a tick is crawling on you but isn’t attached to you, remove the tick and flush it in the toilet or submerse it in rubbing alcohol or wrap in tape and then throw it away. But if the tick is already attached to you, use tweezers to remove it and be careful not to break the tick.”

In some areas of the country, scientists are warning of the Powassan, or POW, virus—a rare disease that can be life-threatening and has no treatment.

However, Merritt says most cases of the POW virus have occurred in the Northeast and Great Lakes region.

Merritt says that when it comes to ticks, it is important for people to be aware of their surroundings and to go to the doctor immediately if they don’t feel well and think they may have been bitten.