America’s Creepiest

Many people suffer from arachnophobia, or fear of spiders, but spiders are really not the most threatening arthropod out there. I mean, even if we only consider the ones with eight legs, spiders just can’t hold a candle to their parasitic cousin the tick. Spiders are shy, graceful creatures that live in undisturbed corners and employ a fanciful web to trap insect pests. Only a few of them can deliver a dangerous bite, and those few are not eager to engage. Ticks, on the other hand, are delighted to engage. They’re always on the lookout for a new place to live… and that place is you. Once it’s made contact, the tick will inspect your body thoroughly for a cozy, out-of-the-way crevice or hairline to silently set up camp. A tick’s saliva contains compounds to numb sensation so that you, the host, can remain blissfully ignorant as it works its mouthparts deeper and deeper into your tissues. Then it begins to swell. Five times, ten times its original size, gorging on your blood until its own skin is stretched and shiny. Then it’s on to other things, namely dropping off the host to get busy laying thousands of tiny, sticky eggs. These will hatch, untended, into a swarm of adorable tick offspring.

It turns out, however, that even among ticks there is an especially objectionable individual named Amblyomma americanum, the lone star tick. Do you get the chills when you spy a tick scuttling rapidly across your skin, in search of a place to conceal itself? This one can move three times faster than the others. Even one of them is pretty disgusting, but the lone star tick can attack in swarms of several hundred at a time, so thick that they have to be removed with a lint roller. This is an especially aggressive parasite that will actually chase its host in order to score an opportunity to feed. Like other ticks, it has no trouble delivering multiple infectious diseases with its bite.

Perhaps more disturbing than its capacity to carry infection, however, is its ability to tinker with your immune system. This type of tick can carry a chemical in its saliva, called alpha-gal, that’s also found in red meat (and in anything made using mammalian tissues, including medicines, vaccines, and many non-meat foods). When a lone star tick anchors its mouthparts in your skin and begins its assault on you, it introduces your immune system to alpha-gal in a rather violent way. Thousands of people have developed a red meat allergy from the bite of this parasite, and that is an incurable condition. The reaction can be life-threatening and, naturally, can also occur with exposure to any other material containing alpha-gal—including cancer chemotherapy and heart valve transplants. Scary? You better believe it.

According to the CDC, lone star tick territory has been expanding very rapidly, into the midwest and beyond. If you’ve never seen one, don’t worry; you’ll probably get the chance within the next couple of years. America’s creepiest arthropod is taking the nation by storm.

Dr. M.S. Regan