Chiggers are a common summertime irritation. These tiny parasites — a type of mite — can leave itchy, red spots on the skin. And that itch can be so severe that it drives people to distraction. But a new report suggests these mite bites might trigger even bigger problems: an allergy to red meat.
Chiggers are the larvae of harvest mites. These tiny spider relatives hang out in forests, shrubs and grassy areas. Adult mites feed on plants. But their larvae eat skin. When people or other animals spend time in — or even just walk through — areas with chiggers, the larvae may drop or climb onto them.
Once the larval mites find a patch of skin, they inject saliva into it. Enzymes in that saliva help break down skin cells into a gloopy liquid. Think of it as a smoothie that chiggers slurp up. It’s the body’s reaction to those enzymes that make the skin itch.
But the saliva may contain more than just enzymes, finds Russell Traister. He works at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. As an immunologist, he studies how our bodies respond to germs and other invaders. Traister teamed up with colleagues at Wake Forest and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. They also worked with an entomologist, or insect biologist, at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The group reported on three cases of people who developed allergies to red meat after a skin infestation of chiggers. Such allergies had previously been seen only after tick bites.
The body detects an invader
How could a chigger’s dining on skin make the body later react to eating meat? Red meat comes from mammals. And the muscle cells of mammals contain a carbohydrate made from small sugar molecules known as galactose (Guh-LAK-tose). Scientists call this muscle carb “alpha-gal” for short.
Meat is rich in muscle. Normally, when people eat red meat, its alpha-gal stays in their gut, where it causes no problem. But some critters, such as the Lone Star tick, have alpha-gal in their saliva. When these ticks bite someone, that alpha-gal gets into their blood. The victim’s immune system can react as though alpha-gal is some germ or other invader. Their body then creates lots of antibodies against alpha-gal. (Antibodies are proteins that help the immune system respond quickly to what the body views as a threat.)
The next time these people eat red meat, their bodies are primed to react — even though that alpha-gal poses no real harm. Such immune responses to non-threatening things (like pollen or alpha-gal) are known as allergies. Symptoms may include hives (big, red welts), vomiting, a runny nose or sneezing. Affected people may even go into anaphylaxis (AN-uh-fuh-LAK-sis). This is an extreme allergic reaction. It makes the body go into shock. In some instances, it can cause death.
Allergic reactions to alpha-gal are tricky to identify. They only show up several hours after eating meat. So it can be hard for people to realize the meat was responsible.
Hunting down the cause
Traister and his team knew tick bites could trigger alpha-gal allergies. It’s not very common, but does happen. So when they met three patients who had recently developed the allergy, it wasn’t too surprising. Except that none had recent tick bites. What each patient did have in common: chiggers.
One man became allergic after his skin had become infested by hundreds of chiggers while hiking. He had been bitten by ticks years earlier. But his meat allergy only showed up after the chigger encounter — soon after.
Another man had worked near some shrubs. He found dozens of tiny red mites on himself. His skin also developed the telltale red blotches from some 50 chigger bites. A few weeks later, he ate meat and for the first time ever reacted by breaking out in hives.
And a woman similarly became allergic to meat after chigger bites. Although she too had suffered tick bites years earlier, her meat reaction emerged only after the chiggers.
Traister’s group described these cases July 24 in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice.
Could this be mistaken identity?
It might seem these chigger encounters were clearly behind the new cases of alpha-gal allergy. But Traister cautions that it can be hard to know for sure. Chiggers look a lot like “seed ticks” — the tiny larvae of ticks. The skin reaction to each also looks similar and becomes equally itchy.
For these reasons, Traister says, “It is easy for a layperson to misidentify [what] has bitten them.” And that, he adds, makes it difficult to prove chiggers caused the meat allergy. Still, the circumstances certainly suggest the three new cases got their meat allergy from chiggers. Two of them even described their attackers as red — the color of adult mites. The researchers also questioned several hundred other people with alpha-gal allergy. Some of them, too, said they never had been bitten by a tick.
“The notion of chiggers causing red-meat allergy makes sense,” says Scott Commins. He is an immunologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He was not involved with the study but notes that chiggers and ticks share some habits. “Both can take blood meals through the skin,” he says, “which is the ideal route to create an allergic response.”
The researchers are working to figure out whether chiggers are the source of some alpha-gal allergies. Fortunately, it’s not something to get too worried about. “Overall, this allergy is very rare,” Traister says. Few people infested by ticks or chiggers ever become allergic to meat.
allergy The inappropriate reaction by the body’s immune system to a normally harmless substance. Untreated, a particularly severe reaction can lead to death.
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
carbohydrates Any of a large group of compounds occurring in foods and living tissues, including sugars, starch and cellulose. They contain hydrogen and oxygen in the same ratio as water (2:1) and typically can be broken down in an animal’s body to release energy.
cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.
clinical (in medicine) A term that refers to diagnoses, treatments or experiments involving people.
colleague Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.
distraction Any event or situation that draws someone’s attention away from whatever had been his or her main focus. Distractions can be external events, such as sounds or sights; or they can be internal events, such as thoughts or emotions.
entomology The scientific study of insects. One who does this is an entomologist.
enzymes Molecules made by living things to speed up chemical reactions.
gut An informal term for the gastrointestinal tract, especially the intestines.
immune system The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.
immunology The field of biomedicine that deals with the immune system. A doctor or scientist who works in that field is known as an immunologist.
infestation A parasitic community of pests, such as when wasps make their home on the porch of an abandoned house or lice make their home on the human scalp.
larva (plural: larvae) An immature life stage of an insect, which often has a distinctly different form as an adult. (Sometimes used to describe such a stage in the development of fish, frogs and other animals.)
mammal A warm-blooded animal distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for feeding their young, and (typically) the bearing of live young.
mite An invertebrate belonging to the broad group of animals known as arachnids, which also include spiders and ticks. None of these are insects, although like insects they belong to the larger umbrella group, called arthropods (named for their members’ segmented legs).
molecule An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).
muscle A type of tissue used to produce movement by contracting its cells, known as muscle fibers. Muscle is rich in protein, which is why predatory species seek prey containing lots of this tissue.
parasite An organism that gets benefits from another species, called a host, but doesn’t provide that host any benefits. Classic examples of parasites include ticks, fleas and tapeworms.
pollen Powdery grains released by the male parts of flowers that can fertilize the female tissue in other flowers. Pollinating insects, such as bees, often pick up pollen that will later be eaten.
protein A compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. Among the better-known, stand-alone proteins are the hemoglobin (in blood) and the antibodies (also in blood) that attempt to fight infections. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.
red meat A term used to describe beef, lamb or other meats that appear red when uncooked — and not light colored (as chicken breast is) when cooked.
shock (in medicine) A potentially fatal bodily reaction to a variety of conditions, including illness, injury, blood loss and lack of adequate water, usually characterized by marked loss of blood pressure, decreased blood circulation and inadequate blood flow to the tissues.
shrub A perennial plant that grows in a generally low, bushy form.
symptom A physical or mental indicator generally regarded to be characteristic of a disease. Sometimes a single symptom — especially a general one, such as fever or pain — can be a sign of any of many different types of injury or disease.
tick A small eight-legged blood-sucking arthropod, related to spiders and mites. Although they look like bugs, these are not insects. They attach themselves to the skin of their host and feed on their blood. But in the process, they may spread any germs that could have been present in the blood of an earlier host.
welt A red spot on the skin, often accompanied by swelling. It can mark a bug bite or where the skin has been slapped or otherwise struck in some fashion.
Journal: L.P. Stoltz et al. Could chiggers be contributing to the prevalence of galactose-alpha-3-galactose sensitization and mammalian meat allergy? The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice. Published online July 24, 2018. doi: 10.1016/j.jaip.2018.07.014.