When it comes to describing the different characteristics of tick varieties present on the East End, it’s clear which one is the go-getter of the group, quite literally: the Lone Star tick.
Dr. Erin McGintee, an allergist and immunologist based out of her native East Hampton, describes the Lone Star as “a very aggressive tick,” while Brian Kelly, owner of East End Tick and Mosquito Control, sums it up in the kind of detail fit for the synopsis of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series.
“They don’t just wait and quest for a blood meal like the deer tick,” he said. “We find Lone Star ticks moving across lawns, patios, and stone driveways searching for a blood meal, as they are attracted to the carbon dioxide our bodies let off.”
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Dr. McGintee and others in her field are seeing a rise in diagnosed cases of Alpha-Gal, the meat allergy often caused by a Lone Star tick bite. Lyme disease has long been the headline-grabbing affliction associated with ticks, but awareness about Alpha-Gal has been on the rise, for good reason.
In a typical year, Dr. McGintee sees around 60 new cases of Alpha-Gal, but in the last year, she has diagnosed 91 cases of the meat allergy, an increase of more than 30 patients.
The significant rise in cases can be attributed to a few causes. There is generally more awareness of Alpha-Gal, meaning people who develop a meat allergy are now more likely to realize that it came from a Lone Star bite. There are now more people living on the East End year round, especially because the pandemic meant people could work from home more easily. The quarantine requirements caused by the pandemic also meant more people were spending time out in nature, thus increasing their exposure to ticks. And finally, experts like Mr. Kelly believe there are simply more Lone Star ticks in the environment these days, a troubling finding.
“It seems that the Lone Star tick population on the East End is exploding,” he said. “We are finding more Lone Star ticks than ever.”
That’s why hiring someone like Mr. Kelly or any of the other tick and pest control companies in the area is a good idea for homeowners, especially during a time when people are still spending a significant amount of time outdoors and in their yards. Mr. Kelly recommends spraying between April and November, on a monthly basis.
While it is not a revelation that the Lone Star is an aggressive tick, Dr. McGintee admitted she was surprised to see such a rise in Alpha-Gal cases, and said that while there are likely several contributing factors, she said the idea that Lone Star tick populations are increasing is unsettling. She added that changes in behavior caused by the pandemic have likely contributed to the rise in Alpha-Gal cases as well.
“One aspect is probably increased exposure, because we couldn’t go to restaurants or do other things [because of the pandemic], so I know that with my family, we did a lot more outdoors over last spring and summer,” she said. “It felt like a safe thing to do, at least in terms of COVID.”
Dr. McGintee added that the population explosion related to the pandemic has also played a specific kind of role.
“There are more people out here now, and so many of them came out in March of last year, and they used to be just weekenders or summer people, and they may not have been as tick savvy as we are,” she said. “People who live here year round know that April and May are a really bad time for getting ticks. The lack of familiarity with how aggressive ticks can be may have also been a factor, but these are all just theories.”
Dr. McGintee pointed out that not all people who are bitten by Lone Star ticks develop the meat allergy, and that there isn’t yet a scientific understanding of why some people who are bitten develop the meat allergy and others don’t. She also cautioned that while the sensitivity to meat can wane over time in someone who had initially suffered a Lone Star bite and then developed the sensitivity to meat — maybe leading to a false assumption that they are “cured” — any additional Lone Star bites can reactivate the allergy or make it worse.
Dr. McGintee also cautioned against panic testing, saying that discovering a Lone Star bite is not a reason to run out and get tested for Alpha-Gal, especially because false positive test results are not uncommon.
“It’s better if you have a bite to just be a little cautious with eating big portions of fatty meats,” she said.
Of course, the best way to eliminate the stress of worrying about developing the allergy is to avoid a bite in the first place.
“Prevention is so important,” Dr. McGintee said. “You need to know where the ticks are, and when they’re most likely to be biting.”
By now, it’s common knowledge that trudging around in tall grass or walking the dog through the weeds or leaf piles is asking for trouble. Tick larva are born in late August and September, so those are months to be extra cautious, in addition to the spring months when the ticks emerge. Spritzing clothes with Deet-containing insect repellent, and wearing long socks or pants — preferably in light colors — are also key tips, along with doing routine checks, especially on children.
Of course spraying the yard is key as well, especially for families with small children who like to be free to explore and aren’t as good as adults at being vigilant. Kelly said that while popular organic sprays can help reduce tick populations, they need to be applied more frequently and are not nearly as effective as the traditional chemical approach.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the customer as to what gets sprayed on their property but our goal is to protect our clients the best we can from tick bites and my suggestion is to use the permethrin-based products for the best results,” he said. “The label states that children and pets can go back outside once the product has dried, usually within an hour after spraying.
“Whether it’s due to global warming, a high deer population, a humid spring, or a large acorn crop last winter,” he added, “scientists are suggesting that this year will be a terrible year for ticks on the east end.”