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Published on September 19, 2016

Lone Star ticks on the Cape are a game changer

Lone Star ticks on the Cape are a game changer

While biking along the Shining Sea Trail in West Falmouth this summer, a local woman stopped for a snack in a grassy area along the path. That evening she began to feel something like bug bites that were very itchy.

Fortunately, she used duct tape to pull off one of the tiny bugs and suspected she was suffering from tick bites. She immediately went to see internal medicine physician, Marilyn Gordon, MD in Falmouth, who then consulted with tick expert Larry Dapsis, an entomologist and coordinator of Barnstable County’s Deer Tick Project.

He confirmed that the tick was a relatively new type on the Cape, the Lone Star tick.

This incident and an alarming number of others across the Cape have confirmed that the region’s already abundant tick population has become more diverse, said Dapsis.

“This can be a game changer,” Dapsis says about the Lone Star Tick’s rapid spread on the Cape, as well as on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s the first established population on the Massachusetts mainland, and it is in our backyard.”

Why It’s a Health Concern

The Lone Start tick, which arrived here only in the last three or four years, is not a passive opportunist like the more common dog and deer ticks. While those tick species wait until a host makes contact with them, the Lone Star tick will actively pursue a host, he explained.

The female Lone Star tick is easily distinguished from any other tick by her pronounced white dot or star in the center of her back. The tick is a health concern because it can transmit the pathogens that can cause:

  • Ehrlichiosis – Symptoms include headache, muscle aches and fatigue. It may be accompanied by a rash.
  • STARI – Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness has symptoms similar to Lyme disease and is detectable by the same kind of “bull’s-eye” rash associated with Lyme.
  • Tularemia – Symptoms include skin ulcers, swollen and painful lymph glands, fever, chills, headache and exhaustion.
  • Red meat allergy -If infected, some people could suffer an allergy to red meat as well as pork and even beef products, such as gelatin.

The CDC advises people to monitor their health closely after any tick bite, and consult a physician if they experience any of the following symptoms within 30 days of a tick bite:

  • Rash
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Joint or muscle pains
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Cape Cod Mosquito Control contacted Dapsis three years ago about what they reported as a “different tick.”

He then sampled five different points three miles apart sometime in June and found nymphs and adults “from stem to stern.” That September, he found many larvae, as the eggs were hatching out.

The Cape Cod hotbed for Lone Star ticks, whose scientific name is Amblyomma americanum, is Sandy Neck, along with neighboring Cuttyhunk and Naushon Islands.

“They own Naushon and Cuttyhunk and they are well established in Sandy Neck Beach Park in West Barnstable,” reported Dapsis.

Red Meat Allergy

The red meat allergy that some people develop after being bitten by a Lone Star tick occurs because the nymphs/adults, which are active during the summer, carry a sugar called alpha-gal, which is found in red meat. Usually, it would pose no problem, but when you are bitten, the tick transfers its alpha-gal into the bloodstream. This may lead to a mild reaction that could require antihistamines. But for some, the bite could lead to anaphylactic shock requiring epinephrine.

Symptoms can take up to eight hours to manifest. It’s not yet known if red meat allergy is permanent. While some people show indications of recovery, others do not.

Because Lone Star ticks are aggressive and chase their targets, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions pet owners to be particularly vigilant, as well. Locally, coyotes and wild turkey can be hosts of the ticks, too.

The Lone Star appears to be active in most terrain on Cape Cod, even one that is not heavily vegetated, Dapsis said. He recently received two independent reports from people who found adult Lone Star ticks on their clothing after they had climbed into their cars. In both cases the people said they had walked on gravel from the door to the car with no contact with vegetation.

Dapsis confirmed this observation with entomologist Dan Gilrein, who works at Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension in Riverhead , N.Y on Long Island. Lone Star ticks have been present there for several years.