South Carolina hunter contracted Alpha Gal disease from Lone Star tick

Disease causes serious allergic reactions to meat and meat byproducts

Darren Nichols contracted the Alpha Gal disease after being bitten by a Lone Star tick while on a hunting trip in 2017. It’s changed his life — and his family’s life — drastically. And they would like other hunters to know about it, especially since the Lone Star tick has been found in Mississippi and every state in the southeast.

While on a hunting trip, Nichols felt something on his back. When his hunting buddy took a look, he saw a tick embedded in Nichols’ skin and removed it. Nichols didn’t think much of it, until months later, when he became gravely ill. He had multiple medical tests that couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong. Then he remembered the tick bite and told his doctor. He was diagnosed with Lyme disease, and was prescribed antibiotics to help treat the disease.

But he wasn’t getting any better. He still became dreadfully sick multiple times. He suffered from intestinal problems, leg cramping, and various flu-like symptoms that left him bedridden at times. Doctors ran CT-scans, X-rays, and various tests but failed to determine the cause of his illness.

A television show leads to answers

After lots of frustration, Nichols’ wife Tina happened to see a television show where the host spoke of something she’d never heard about. The show focused on the Lone Star tick, the symptoms of Alpha Gal disease, and the only test (IGE test) to diagnose the ailment. She was sure this was their answer.

Victims of Alpha Gal disease develop allergies to the food products that come from any animal with a hoof. So pork, beef, venison, lamb, cheese, milk, etc. will all cause severe illness and can even result in death.

“It has made a huge impact on our lives, and beyond just what we cook at home. Going out to eat is very difficult because meat byproducts are used in so many ingredients. And there is cross-contamination of foods in the kitchen. Any time we eat in a restaurant, we are always careful to tell the waitress about his allergies. But sometimes he still gets very sick after eating out. You could order rice and not know that it’s boiled in meat broth, or any number of similar scenarios,” said Tina Nichols.

And it isn’t just certain foods that Nichols must avoid.

“Most people don’t realize how many non-food items contain meat byproducts. He has to get special toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, and I’m even careful about what makeup I wear around him. Any exposure to products with meat in their ingredients will make him extremely sick. It’s been a huge lifestyle change for us, and we are still learning,” said Tina.

Disease has no cure

No cure exists for the disease. Avoidance of the Lone Star tick itself is the first line of defense. But if a person contracts Alpha Gal, their only option is completely avoiding contact with meat or meat byproducts.

That’s been especially hard on Darren Nichols. He’s a lifelong hunter, and the owner of a sporting goods store that caters to outdoorsmen. They also do deer processing, so he has had to halt deer hunting and helping with the processing facility.

“He has always prided himself in eating off the land. But he’s no longer able to do that, except with turkeys and fish. He was not even able to eat the venison he brought back from his last Texas trip,” said Tina Nichols.

Although he first became sick in June 2017, he wasn’t diagnosed with Alpha Gal until October. Since then, he and his family have taken great pains to avoid meat and meat byproducts. But he still gets sick from time to time, mainly by unknowingly coming into contact with products that contain trace ingredients of meat.

“The tick was very deeply embedded in his back. And the Lone Star tick, despite its name, is prevalent throughout the southeast, not just in Texas. We’re not sure how long the tick was on him,” said Tina Nichols.

Steps to take against ticks

The best defense against ticks is using any product that contains Permethrin, which you can spray onto hunting clothes and boots. Pants that fit tight with elastic or cuffs are also a big help to keep ticks from crawling up your legs. Most ticks get onto humans from the ground and climb up. So everywhere you step when you’re in the woods is a possible point of contact.

“Darren carries Permethrin spray with him everywhere he goes now. He also carries an EpiPen and a glucose shot. If he gets bitten by another tick, it will make his sickness much worse than it already is,” said Tina Nichols.

She said if she’d not seen that television show, they may still not know what Alpha Gal even is.

“Very few people even know what it is, or anything about the Lone Star tick. I am sure there are people out there that have Alpha Gal but don’t even know it. Anyone, especially those who have spent any time in the outdoors, if they have unexplained illnesses should request an IGE test. It’s a type of allergy test. It will detect a carbohydrate sugar that is only present if you’ve contracted Alpha Gal from a Lone Star tick. And many doctors simply don’t think of administering this test to people with these symptoms,” she said.

Properly removing ticks is also key

“People also need to know that there’s a right way and wrong way to remove a tick. Just yanking it out causes the tick to regurgitate into the person’s bloodstream. And that’s how they spread disease.

“Reactions to Alpha Gal are different for different people. Some may have trouble breathing, lots of digestive problems, flu-like symptoms, or hives. It really varies from one person to the next. But if anyone out there is getting sick without knowing why, we encourage them to be aggressive with their doctors in requesting the IGE test. It’s the only way to diagnose it,” she said.

Deer season is coming up fast. Don’t go in the woods without some form of tick protection.

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