How a Single Bite from the Lone Star Tick Causes Meat Allergy
When you think of food allergy, you most likely think of people you know who are allergic to peanuts or shellfish, and who, after one bite of the offending food, suffer the tell-tale signs of a reaction—swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing, and an immediate and life-threatening response.
But there is a new and growing allergy threat that is spreading across the country. This allergy is to mammalian meat, like beef, pork, and lamb, as well as wild game, and is spread by a bite from the Lone Star tick, a species present throughout the southeast United States, as far north as the Great Lakes, and as far west as Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas, and along the entire eastern seaboard.
The challenging thing about identifying a meat allergy is that the onset of symptoms is not immediate, but rather, can occur within 3 hours, or up to 10-12 hours after consuming meat products, so many times patients don’t immediately associate their reaction with their diet. The symptoms of an attack are often severe—hives and shortness of breath are most common, but an anaphylactic reaction is possible as well.
Because this allergy is still relatively new, states are not yet required to report it to the Centers for Disease Control, and the CDC is not formerly tracking its progression, but incidences continue to rise at an alarming rate. Researchers and epidemiologists are working hard to identify exactly how this allergy develops; as of this time, there is no known cure. Scientists have identified the presence of a carbohydrate in meat called galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose, or “alpha-gal” for short. Some schools of thought suggest that there is something in the tick’s saliva that triggers the human immune system to go crazy in the presence of this alpha-gal sugar. It could also be a virus or bacteria present in the tick’s saliva that causes the reaction. Still another school of thought suggests that the tick’s saliva actually still contains residual proteins from the ticks’ earlier meal that causes the problem.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. Just one single bite from the Lone Star tick causes meat allergy in its victims, and renders them extremely allergic. The name given to this condition is Alpha-Gal Allergy. People who develop Alpha-Gal allergy must be extremely careful when eating out or at a friend’s house. Even the smallest amount of meat or meat-products will cause the immune system to go into overdrive—causing gastric distress, hives, rash, stuffy nose, headache, sneezing, asthma, or anaphylaxis. Some Alpha-Gel patients can eat small amounts of meat with little to no problem, but others must even avoid broth made with meat, gelatin, and even some medications in capsule form.
The Lone Star tick that causes Meat Allergy
The Lone Star tick is a small, aggressive tick that attacks and feeds in all stages of its development, including larvae. Pictured in the center above, it is named for the white “Texas shaped” splotch on the back of adult females. The distribution, range, and abundance of Lone Star ticks have all increased over the past 20 to 30 years, according to the CDC. And warmer summers could make that situation even worse.
Treatment for Meat Allergy
If you think you are having an allergic reaction to meat, seek medical attention. It is important to see an allergist for testing, and for prescription of epinephrine, in case the next reaction is more serious. As of now, the only treatment for an allergy to meat is to adopt a vegetarian diet. If, after removing all meat and meat products from your diet, the allergic reaction continues, consider removing milk and milk products from your diet entirely.
There is some good news, however. Unlike most food allergies, it may be possible for the alpha-gal allergy to go away in time, provided that the person avoids any new tick bites and refrains from meat consumption during the recovery period. Recovery from the allergy takes anywhere from eight months to five years, although some people never do recover.
At this point, there are still many unanswered questions about alpha-gal syndrome and how the Lone Star tick bite causes meat allergy. The best recommendation continues to be prevention of tick bites. Always check for ticks when you or your children come in from outdoors. When it comes to tick-borne illness, vigilant defense is your best chance to remain healthy.