Posted with permission from NJ.com
The range of the Lone Star tick (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) The range of the Lone Star tick (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Lasagna. Cheeseburgers. Pizza. Ice cream.

Jerry Dotoli has enjoyed them all for most of his 73 years with no discomfort, only pleasure.

Until last December, that is. The Ocean County man had gone to Florida for the winter, where he was beset by frequent hives accompanied by a ferocious itching "four times worse than poison ivy."

After enduring one misdiagnosis after another, Dotoli finally learned from a blood test that he had become allergic to meat, pork and dairy - the very allergens he'd been happily ingesting nearly every day.

And the culprit? Most likely a bite from the Lone Star tick.

"People are really blindsided when I tell them," he said. "They say, 'Lyme disease, right?'"

The Lone Star tick is "more of an annoyance than an important disease vector," said Tim Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island's TickEncounter Resource Center. It can transmit a Lyme-like disease called human ehrlichiosis, but that strikes only three people out of a million, and is fatal only one percent of the time. The tick does not transmit Lyme itself.

It's a very aggressive biter, and its bites typically come with a wicked itch - a telltale sign. The itch can last for weeks or even months.

While the female has the distinctive white dot that gives the species its name, the males are difficult to recognize and after often mistaken for the more feared "deer tick."

The Lone Star has become common in the southern part of New Jersey, especially along the eastern, coastal counties, Mather said. It is now the predominant tick on the eastern end of Long Island as well.

In New Jersey's higher elevations, it is less common, although its range is gradually expanding. "They definitely keep prodding themselves a little bit north," Mather said.

Dotoli's allergy, called Alpha-gal (rhymes with "pal"), can be hard for meat-lovers to recognize because beef and pork are so prevalent in their diets, said the allergy researcher who played a major role in discovering it.

"If you're allergic to shrimp, well, most people don't eat shrimp every day. So if you have a reaction to shrimp, you know it. People come in and tell us they're allergic to shrimp, and they're usually right," said Thomas Platts-Mills, of the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

This allergy can also elude detection because unlike most food allergies, it has a delayed onset. While a person allergic to peanuts will know something's amiss within 15 minutes of eating peanuts, someone with Alpha-gal won't sense any reaction at least two hours, with four or five hours being more common, he said.

In his research, Platts-Mills was able to see that the lab tests showing the unusual antibody triggering the allergy appeared only in a broad swath of the eastern and southern United States. That footprint had fairly distinct "borders" past which the allergy simply didn't exist.

That hinted at an environmental factor at play. After a few days of casting about on the internet, his technician hit upon a map showing the maximum range of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever - a tick-borne disease. It mirrored the Alpha-gal map almost exactly.

When Platts-Mills and his team took a closer look at patients in some of those states, they found the allergy present in people who seemingly led very different lives - from a socialite to an air-conditioning repairman. What proved to be the common link was lots of outdoor activity, he said: The socialite sponsored a fox hunt, the repairman was an avid hunter.

That implicated ticks, more specifically, the Lone Star tick.

In an odd twist of fate, Platts-Mills came down with the allergy himself after researching it - a development made evident to him when he broke out in hives six hours after eating some lamb chops in London.

Adapting to the allergy hasn't been difficult for him. "My cardiologist doesn't want me to eat red meat anyway, so for me, it's not a problem," he said.

It has been a bigger adjustment for Dotoli, who now has a water bagel - not one made with milk - for breakfast, tuna or egg salad sandwich for lunch, and cashews or raisins for a snack.

"At night is the hard time. I'm eating a lot of eggplant with spaghetti sauce," he said. "I have to be very careful with baked good, because some of them contain milk. So my jelly doughnuts are out the window."

He said his heart goes out to children who come down with the allergy and have to learn to restrict their diets.

There is a small chance the allergy will disappear in about five years if Dotoli avoids further tick bites. So his daily "tick check" involves a full-length mirror for viewing his front and a hand-held mirror for his back.

That should help him avoid a worsening of the situation - although science is not yet clear on that point.

"We're 100 percent sure that tick bites can cause this," Platts-Mills said, while cautioning: "But we're not 100 percent sure that they're the only cause."

Kathleen O'Brien may be reached at kobrien@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBrienLedger. Find NJ.com on Facebook.