Darren Nichols of Rock Hill, SC contracted the Alpha Gal disease after being bitten by a Lone Star tick while on a hunting trip to Texas in May 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 both Carolinas, as well as many other states.
While on his Texas hunting trip, Nichols felt something on his back. When his hunting buddy took a look, he saw a tick embedded in Nichols’ back and removed it. He didn’t think much of it, until months later, when he became gravely ill, and had multiple medical tests that couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong. Then he remembered the tick bite, told his doctor, 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 with everything 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.
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 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 food that Nichols has to 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.
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 Nichols Store in Rock Hill, which caters to outdoorsmen from both Carolinas. 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 Texas trip,” said Tina Nichols.
Although he first became sick in June 2017, it wasn’t until October that he was diagnosed with Alpha Gal. 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.
Although they initially thought the Lone Star tick made itself home on Nichols’ back during his hunting trip, Tina Nichols said now they aren’t so sure.
“The tick was very deeply embedded in his back, and the Lone Star tick, despite its name, is more prevalent in the Carolinas and all along the east coast than it is in Texas. We think he may have had the tick already on him when he left home,” she said.
The best defense against getting ticks on you is using any product that contains Permethrin, which you can spray onto hunting clothes and boots. Wearing pants with cuffs that tie or fit tight with elastic 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 and 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, which is 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.
“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, which is how they spread disease.
“And the reactions to Alpha Gal are different for different people. Some may have trouble breathing, lots of digestive problems, flu-like symptoms, 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.
Since learning more about Alpha Gal, the couple has been proactive in educating others about it, and have also begun carrying more products to help outdoorsmen stave off the tick, and products to properly remove them when embedded in the human body. Check out their website at www.nicholsstore.com, or visit them in person at 1980 Mt. Holly Rd, Rock Hill, SC.
And don’t go in the woods without some form of tick protection.