Getting bitten by a lone star tick can cause people to develop an allergy to meat. Experts who have been monitoring cases of the so-called alpha-gal allergy now say that the number of people in the United States affected by this strange sensitivity is increasing.
Alpha gal is a sugar found in animals. Humans do not have alpha-gal but have an immune response to it. It is believed that when lone star ticks pick up alpha-gal after biting a deer, they transfer this to the bloodstream of the humans they bite. An allergic reaction is triggered when a person is sensitized to alpha-gal.
Besides setting off allergic reactions to red meat and sometimes dairy, the sensitivity is also linked to buildup of plaque in heart arteries, which raises risk of heart attack and stroke.
Symptoms include redness, hives, swelling, and itching. Some patients also reported having abdominal cramping and pain.
"Beef, pork, lamb, goat, rabbit, buffalo, horse, etc.," said allergist Scott Commins, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. "Particularly fatty cuts are the worse for causing more severe reactions. This includes organs meat as well."
He said that most of his patients carry EpiPens since the condition may lead to anaphylaxis, a potentially deadly allergic reaction that needs emergency treatment. Commins said that those who have the condition have to learn to use an EpiPen in case of accidental exposure.
The condition is diagnosed with a combination of the patient's medical history, results of blood or skin allergy tests, a possibly a food challenge, which involve feeding the patient meat.
Commins revealed that there are now about 5,000 known cases of the allergy in the country. The number is up from just 3,500 cases two years ago.
Is There A Treatment?
Unfortunately, no established treatment is currently available for people with alpha-gal allergy. Management is the best recourse.
"Once a meat allergy is diagnosed, the best treatment is to avoid the trigger. Carefully check ingredient labels of food products, and learn whether what you need to avoid is known by other names," the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology said.
"Depending on your sensitivity, even just walking into a kitchen or another place where food is prepared can cause an allergic reaction."
The allergy becomes less severe over time. It usually goes away after two or three years provided that the patient does not have additional tick bites.