A Red Meat Allergy from a Tick Bite
There’s a new allergy in town, and ironically, it has the power to force hunters to give up eating red meat.
Alpha-gal allergy is brought on by the bite of the lone star tick, causing some unlucky individuals to become severely allergic to mammal products.
Eating red meat or consuming dairy products, breathing in the cooking fumes, wearing leather… even the gelatin capsules that contain everyday medicine can potentially cause an allergic reaction, in some instances as severe as anaphylactic shock.
“I’d get hit with a crippling stomach ache that would start an hour or two after almost every meal. Sometimes I’d get sick enough to spend a few hours vomiting in the bathroom. Other times I’d feel a tightness in my chest and a rash of hives would break out on my skin.” — Alex Robinson, an avid hunter in North Dakota who suffers from alpha-gal, as told to Outdoor Life
“Alpha-gal” is short for alpha-gal syndrome, or alpha-gal allergy. Alpha-gal itself is a sugar molecule found in most animals. The scientific name is galactose-α-1,3-galactose.
Primates (including humans), fish, birds and reptiles do not have this sugar molecule, but most mammals do — including those we see as popular food sources: cows, pigs, deer, sheep, bison, and even goats,
Ticks — most notably, the lone star tick — has alpha-gal molecules in its saliva. When a person is bitten by the tick, the human body doesn’t recognize the foreign sugar molecule now embedded in the tissue and sees it as an invader, a threat.
The human cells around the bite release antibodies (known as immunoglobulin E, or igE), which cause the body to produce histamines to combat the invader — the alpha-gal molecules.
This is the same chain of events experienced with any allergy.
The problem begins when individuals become hyper-sensitive to alpha-gal and their immune-response floods the body with too much histamine when they next become exposed to alpha-gal, usually during the consumption of red meat. The fattier the meat, the more alpha-gal is present. (Note: pork is classified as a red meat)
Scientists haven’t really pinpointed what makes one person more sensitive to alpha-gal compared to another, but it’s believed that repeated exposure to alpha-gal molecules (through multiple tick bites) may cause a person’s antibody levels to rise, making allergic reactions more and more severe.
A person who has developed an allergic response to alpha-gal typically notices food allergy symptoms, ranging from 2–6 hours after consuming mammalian meat (beef, lamb, pork, veal, venison) or by-products such as cheese, butter, or milk.
“…after eating dinner I developed severe hives. They came out of nowhere, and they formed every single day following for nine months. In addition to the hives, my life was a cycle of vomiting, diarrhea and days’ long constipation with no explanation as to the cause. I always became ill at the end of the day, when I was through eating…” — Heather Wilson of Arkansas, as told to Allergy Eats
Other manifestations are skin allergy symptoms from contact with mammal by-products, or allergic reactions resulting from close proximity to cooking (smoke).
“Even with socks on, leather boots will cause a skin reaction,” says hunter Josh Gamblin of Georgia. “I can’t wear a real leather belt anymore…it will make my stomach break out in hives.” — as reported by Go Hunt magazine in 2019
“My (alpha-gal) allergy was so extreme that if my family cooked meat inside our kitchen and I breathed in the fumes, later my throat would start to itch and swell, and I’d start coughing and have trouble breathing. Sometimes, I’d even become nauseous and have horrible headaches. Our whole family had to make major adjustments to our diet.” — Meghann Chapman of Virginia, as told to Woman’s Day
Alpha-gal syndrome is a delayed response allergy. The symptoms are not immediate (as you would see in a peanut allergy, for instance) due to the allergy being linked to a sugar molecule, which is metabolized differently.
Because there is such a delay in response, people often have a hard time pinning down what might have caused their symptoms.
“I suddenly realized every time I eat red meat, I’m getting really sick at night. It’s either when I’m close to bedtime or after dinner, so it it’s usually three to six hours later that I get these terrible GI symptoms.” — Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut, as told to Today
In January 2021, statistics were released showing over 34,000 documented cases of alpha-gal in the U.S. occurring between 2010 and 2018, suggesting alpha-gal syndrome “is an increasingly recognized public health problem.”
Symptoms of Alpha-Gal
- Hives, itching, or itchy, scaly skin (eczema)
- Reddening of the palms, or on the soles of the feet
- Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other body parts
- Wheezing or shortness of breath
- A runny nose
- Stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
- A severe, potentially deadly allergic reaction that restricts breathing(anaphylaxis)
Does Alpha-Gal Go Away on Its Own?
There is still much scientists don’t know about alpha-gal syndrome. There have been cases of people slowly recovering and being able to incorporate red meat back into their diet in increments, after abstaining completely for a year or more.
Other alpha-gal sufferers see their allergy only getting worse, adding an intolerance to dairy, for example, after starting out with only a meat allergy. Several people quoted above are now required to carry EpiPens at all times, in case of accidental exposure.
Additionally, it has been reported that a person with alpha-gal allergy is more likely to develop other serious allergies.
According to a study published by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, people with alpha-gal syndrome were found to be 5x as likely to be sensitized to venom allergens from stinging insects such as wasps, honey bees, hornets, and fire ants.
How to Prevent Alpha-Gal Syndrome
Avoiding contact with ticks is the best way to avoid getting alpha-gal syndrome. Ticks account for 35,000 illnesses in the U.S. each year, so being proactive while outdoors is a must for hunters, hikers, campers and outdoor enthusiasts.
- When possible, walk in the middle of woods paths, avoid tall grass and brushy areas
- Treat clothing and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin
- Use EPA-registered insect repellents containing DEET
- Do a thorough tick check after being outdoors
- Shower within two hours of prolonged outdoor activity
- Wash and dry your clothes immediately if you’ve been in an environment likely to have ticks
- Check pets regularly for ticks
If you’ve been bitten by a tick, monitor your health for any unusual symptoms.
Some people reported their tick bites had occurred up to six weeks before alpha-gal symptoms began. If you haven’t experienced any symptoms two months after a tick bite, you’re probably in the clear.