He could not breathe. It had been hours since Fayetteville resident Kevin Culwell had eaten dinner, and it was the middle of the night. He clutched his throat and found that his airway had closed. This was the first time Culwell had an allergic reaction, but it would not be his last.
Culwell used to only have seasonal allergies to grass, but at 40 years old, he was surprised to learn that he was suffering from a severe allergic reaction from the bacon in his pasta because of a tick bite he does not even remember. Culwell has alpha-gal syndrome, an allergy that causes him to have a reaction to red meat three to six hours after consumption, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Studies show that alpha-gal might be caused by tick bites, and that alpha-gal allergy has been found in some types of ticks, according to the CDC.
Tick-borne diseases have been on the rise, with 2017, which is the latest data on tick-borne diseases, being a record-breaking year, said Ashley Dowling an entomology professor who started the Arkansas Tickborne Disease Project.
The Arkansas Tickborne Disease Project distributes tick kits in different counties, which allow people to self-report their ticks by collecting them and sending them in vials to the UofA where the ticks are collected and screened for pathogens, Dowling said.
The number of tick-borne diseases in the U.S. increased 87% between 2007-17, according to the CDC, and the number of illnesses caused by mosquito, tick and flea bites tripled in the U.S. from 2004 to 2016, according to a 2018 press release.
Reported tick bites are concentrated in cities, Dowling said.
Mild winters and warm springs and summers give pathogen-carrying ticks a stronger chance for survival and increase the overall tick population. Climate change can also lead to an expansion of tick habitats, which might allow more people to come in contact with pathogen-carrying ticks, according to a CDC report.
Junior Trip Phillips, who is majoring in philosophy, developed alpha-gal in 2017 while hammocking in west Little Rock after he received “an absurd amount of tick bites,” he said. Later that spring, he had a severe allergic reaction and had to be taken to the hospital.
What causes alpha-gal and how it is transferred is still unknown, Dowling said. Unlike bacterial pathogens that takes time to infect a host, alpha-gal is a sugar molecule and is thought to immediately transmit to a host because it is found in tick saliva, Dowling said.
Phillips life has changed since he had developed alpha-gal, but not drastically. He now eats more chicken and vegetarian burgers than he did before he developed an allergy to red meat, he said.
“I can't really eat burgers anymore unless they're disappointing burgers,” Phillips said.
Alpha-gal is only one of several tick-borne illnesses in Arkansas, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, tularemia, anaplasmosis and Lyme disease, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. Rocky Mountain spotted fever is one of the most common tick-borne diseases in Arkansas. The American dog tick is the most common carrier, and infected bites can induce symptoms like fever, headache and muscle pain.
While the American dog tick is the most common carrier of spotted fever, spotted fever pathogens are found in 45% of lone star ticks, Dowling said.
The CDC found that the U.S. needs to be better prepared for insect-borne health threats, according to the press release. The CDC is trying to prevent diseases from mosquitoes and ticks by funding and partnering with states and territories to detect and respond to ticks, developing and improving laboratory tests and educating the public on mosquito, tick and flea bites.
Deer are the most common host for lone star ticks, which are the most common carrier for alpha-gal and are found mostly in the southeastern U.S., but the lone star tick appears to be spreading farther north and west, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Deer herds can carry tick-borne diseases, and a growing deer population means an increase in tick-borne diseases, according to a presentation made by Pere Nierengarten the city’s sustainability and resilience director and Gina Niederman, the city’s sustainability and resilience project manager.
To prevent deer spreading disease, Fayetteville’s Animal Services Advisory Board tries to educate citizens on how to behave around deer, encouraging citizens not to feed deer, to fence in yards and apply deer repellent in gardens, according to the city’s deer management page.
Deer and warmer weather allow ticks to propagate farther north. The gulf coast tick, which is a genus of tick traditionally found in the South, has been making its way north, Dowling said.
“It may be a good indicator of subtle climate changes that are occurring,” Dowling said.