What is an alpha-gal allergy?
The number of cases for an alpha-gal allergy, or red meat allergy, has risen over the past few years, and the cause is due to the Lone Star tick. The tick is predominantly found in the southern parts of the United States, ranging from Texas to the East Coast. People who have been bitten by the Lone Star tick may find that they become allergic to red meat, such as beef, pork, venison, bison, and lamb.
How does a person become allergic to red meat?
When the lone star tick bites a mammal, like a deer, it picks up a sugar called alpha-gal, which is not found in humans. Then, when the tick bites a human, the alpha-gal is transferred into the human’s bloodstream, where the immune system identifies it as foreign and creates IgE antibodies to it. The next time the person consumes red meat, the body will recognize the alpha-gal, and the IgE antibodies will cause the release of large amounts histamines through the body, causing an allergic reaction. The reaction may range from symptoms like upset stomach, diarrhea, hives, or itchy mouth, to more serious symptoms like constriction of the airways, a drop in blood pressure, or anaphylaxis that would require epinephrine.
How is an alpha-gal allergy diagnosed?
An alpha-gal allergic reaction usually takes between 3-8 hours after consumption of red meat. Because the reaction does not occur immediately after ingesting red meet, like most other food allergies, it is harder to diagnose. An alpha-gal allergy can be identified by a blood test. Once diagnosed with an alpha-gal allergy, the patient will be prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector.
If have been recently been bitten by a tick, and you are suddenly experiencing symptoms after consuming red meat, visit an allergist and inquire if you may have developed an alpha-gal allergy.
Why is the alpha-gal allergy on the rise?
No one knows why the number of red meat allergies have risen over the recent years. There are currently at least 3,500 cases reported, and doctors believe there are many more that have not yet been diagnosed. The reason could be that ticks have steadily increased in the past 20-30 years, along with an explosion of the deer population. It’s also possible that doctors are now more aware of the allergy, and are able to identify it quicker.
How can I prevent this allergy?
Since an alpha-gal allergy is linked to the Lone Star tick bite, it is important to protect yourself when outside. Avoid wooded areas, leaf litter, and high grass areas. Wear long-sleeved clothing, and use insect repellent like DEET or Permethrin when going to areas where there are ticks. In addition, be sure conduct a full-body tick check and bath or shower after coming indoors.
Is there a cure for an alpha-gal allergy?
There is good news for people with a red meat allergy. The alpha-gal allergy may recede with time. As long as the patient is not bitten by another tick, and has avoided red meat, studies have shown that the allergy may go away within 8 months to 5 years for certain individuals.