Those damn ticks. First it was the deer tick giving us a bacterial infection known as Lyme disease; now there’s a tick that can make us severely allergic to red meat. Are you ticked off yet?
This time we can blame the lone star tick, which used to hang out in its namesake state, Texas, and the southeastern U.S. Today, though, it’s spreading to the East Coast and other parts of the country.
The tick carries a sugar that human bodies don’t have. The sugar, called alpha-gal (short for galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose), naturally occurs in red meat and some dairy products. Normally, it just gets digested along with your food, but when the lone star tick injects the sugar into your bloodstream, your body’s immune system goes into overdrive.
The immune system produces antibodies to fight off this unwelcome substance, so that the next time you eat a juicy steak or your favorite burger, your body reacts in the same way it would if you had a life-threatening peanut allergy: Tissues become inflamed, and the throat swells shut, cutting off the airway.
Louise Danzig, a 63-year-old retired nurse from Montauk, on eastern Long Island, told the Associated Press that hours after eating a burger, “I could feel my lips and tongue were getting swollen.” By the time she made a phone call for help, her symptoms had worsened significantly. “I was losing my ability to speak and my airway was closing,” she said.
A blood test confirmed the meat allergy. “I’ll never have another hamburger, I’m sure,” Danzig said.
It took a while for doctors to realize that this sudden, mysterious meat allergy was tied to a tick bite.
The discovery was first detailed in a 2012 report by Scott Commins, M.D., and Thomas Platts-Mills, M.D., both allergy and immunology experts with the University of Virginia Health System.
The authors noted that 24 cases of this reaction had been reported in 2009. By 2010, “it was obvious that the cases should be counted in hundreds rather than dozens,” they wrote, and by 2012, “it was clear that there are thousands of cases across a large area of the southern and eastern U.S.”
Now, “I see two to three new cases every week,” Commins told the AP. Erin McGintee, M.D., an allergy specialist on eastern Long Island, an area with many ticks, has seen nearly 200 cases over the past three years.
Unlike a typical food allergy, which causes a reaction almost immediately after eating, the tick-related reaction can occur several hours later. In some cases, taking antihistamines, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine), can help, but in other cases, where the reaction is more critical, a shot of epinephrine is needed. Some patients have begun carrying EpiPens with them.
Commins and Platts-Mills wrote that dairy products can also trigger a reaction, and that fattier meats as well as large portions of beef, lamb or pork – in other words, any meat from a mammal – tend to produce more severe reactions. Even poultry products, such as turkey sausage, sometimes contain meat by-products and can trigger the allergy, the experts said.
The allergy may not be lifelong, but as Commins pointed out to the AP, “the caveat is, additional tick bites bring it back.”
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