Red lone star tick on a green leaf.
The lone star tick is named for the marking on its back. It is the carrier of a tick-borne disease called alpha-gal syndrome, which causes humans to have a potentially lethal allergic reaction to red meat and animal products. (Photo: Missouri Department of Conservation)

The lone star tick is not from Texas. It’s named for the marking on its back that resembles a white star against a dark red sky.

Its bite creates Texas-sized problems for the bite sufferer. Alpha-gal syndrome, or AGS, is a potentially lethal reaction to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose, a carbohydrate commonly found in red meat. It can also be found in dairy products and other animal products, like gelatin. When a person has alpha-gal syndrome, their immune system attacks this carbohydrate when it enters the body.

“It is a red meat allergy that is acquired from tick bites, specifically the lone star tick,” Springfield-Greene County Assistant Director of Health Jon Mooney said.

Mooney briefed the Greene County Commission on an upcoming effort to combat alpha-gal on a large scale in the summer of 2023.

“One of the challenges with this syndrome is that not many people know about it and there’s not really a good surveillance system, so it’s hard to understand what the impacts are associated with it,” Mooney said.

Public health agencies are starting to step into a role of spreading awareness of alpha-gal syndrome, especially in places where the population tends to enjoy red meat in its diet.

“A recent survey of health care providers showed about a third of them weren’t aware of what it was, how to diagnose and how to treat, and so that’s going to be one of our first efforts this tick season, if you will, this summer is to really start to educate providers so we can have a better handle on the disease and the impact in the community,” Mooney said.

What happens with AGS?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the severity of an alpha-gal reaction varies from person to person, and a reaction may not occur every time an AGS sufferer consumes an animal product. Generally the effects surface in a few hours.

“Once you have the allergy, whenever you eat red meat it can cause rashes, it can cause vomiting, just kind of a whole systemic response,” Mooney said.

The reaction isn’t always severe enough to cause the suffering person to seek help in an emergency room or urgent care clinic, and so alpha-gal syndrome can continue to go undiagnosed as the person deals with the inconveniences of the disease. Teaching providers to recognize symptoms, test for alpha-gal and develop treatment plans is the first step for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.

“When you get bit by a tick that carries this carbohydrate, it causes a meat allergy that can persist for the rest of your life,” Mooney said. “It can also be very serious. It can be a life-threatening allergy until people understand, get it diagnosed and understand how to respond to it.”

Alpha-gal is usually diagnosed with a physician’s referral to an allergist, according to the CDC.

Signs of alpha-gal

Per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AGS reactions can include:

  • Hives or itchy rash
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Cough, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Swelling of the lips, throat, tongue or eyelids
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Severe stomach pain

Summer is tick season in Missouri

Ticks are adept at carrying diseases because they ingest blood from other animals in order to feed, and they take blood from a variety of mammals, reptiles and birds. In addition to alpha-gal syndrome, ticks may carry Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Heartland virus, Bourbon virus and other diseases.

For all of the tick’s disease-carrying power, Mooney said it’s important for public health agencies to monitor and track tick-borne disease in the communities they serve. New cases of alpha-gal may correspond with an uptick in Lyme disease and other illnesses.

“It’s also one of those indicators for how much tick-borne illness is in the community, because some people might acquire a tick-borne illness and not know it,” Mooney said.

Tick-borne diseases often stay with an infected person for life and can be debilitating or life-threatening.

“A lot of them can be serious,” Mooney said. “One of them that we have seen here a lot is Ehrlichia, and that’s one that actually hospitalizes. Right now, the data shows that almost 50 percent of people that acquire that end up hospitalized.”

Ehrlichiosis is caused by a bacteria ticks carry, and can be deadly if left untreated.

How to prevent tick-borne diseases

According to University of Missouri Health Care, these are some of the best steps you can take to help protect yourself and your family against tick bites when outdoors:

  • Use a chemical repellent with DEET.
  • Wear light-colored clothing, preferably long pants and a shirt with long sleeves.
  • Tuck your pant legs into your socks.
  • Avoid tick-infested areas, such as tall grass and vegetation.
  • Check yourself, your children and your pets for ticks when coming in from outdoors.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger is the managing editor for the Daily Citizen. He previously covered local governments from February 2022 to April 2023. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger