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Are Ticks Making People Allergic to Red Meat?

A tick bite causing a red meat allergy may sound far-fetched, but it’s true. Over the last 20 years, researchers have discovered that one species carries a terrible superpower: ruining steaks, burgers, and bacon for humans.

Food allergies are serious and can be deadly. But unlike others, humans can actually take steps to avoid this one.

Ready to learn how to avoid a tick-borne meat allergy?

Let’s dig in!

Tick Bites May Cause a Red Meat Allergy

Tick-borne illnesses are common in emergency rooms and doctor’s offices. In the U.S., cases of diseases like babesiosis and Lyme disease rise every spring and summer. But a strange new condition appeared around 2002 that had medical professionals scratching their heads.

Many people who reported tick bites began showing signs of a food allergy. But the usual suspects like shellfish, dairy, and wheat weren’t to blame. This time it was red meat that was making people sick.

Until the first reported case in 2002, doctors didn’t think people could become allergic to red meat. Many folks who experienced the strange new condition assumed they had food poisoning. But after multiple bouts, one after another, the pieces of the puzzle started coming together. This was a totally new and undiscovered condition.

It’s been 20 years since the first known case was reported. Since then, doctors and scientists have learned a lot more about this bizarre and fascinating allergy. Now they know it’s caused by exposure to alpha-gal, a sugar present in the saliva of some ticks. They named the condition alpha-gal syndrome, or AGS.

How Common Is a Red Meat Allergy After a Tick Bite?

The tick meat allergy doesn’t affect everyone. Many people who get bites never develop a reaction to red meat.

However, alpha-gal syndrome’s case numbers keep rising dramatically each year. From 2010 to 2018, nearly 35,000 people were diagnosed with the allergy. According to a few studies, these numbers suggest a drastic increase since AGS was discovered.

Scientists now think 1% or 2% of adults and children in the U.S. have alpha-gal syndrome. Although that may not seem like much, it’s a lot more than the zero known cases before 2002.

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Tick crawling on finger
Meat eaters beware! Ticks can cause red meat allergies.

Which Ticks Cause Alpha-Gal Syndrome?

Interestingly, only the Lone Star tick carries the alpha-gal sugar that causes red meat allergies in humans.

If you live in the eastern half of the U.S., it’s important to know how to identify one. These insects love wooded areas, tall grass, and shade. They’re brown or amber in color, with female Lone Star ticks carrying a white dot on their backs. They have six legs during their larval stage but develop eight by adulthood.

At one time, these were only found in the eastern U.S. Now you can find them from Maine to Nebraska and as far south as Texas. Adults are most active from spring to late summer.

Lone Star ticks don’t carry Lyme disease like many of their cousins. However, they do have the germs that cause tularemia and human ehrlichiosis.

What Are the Symptoms of Alpha-Gal Syndrome?

Alpha-gal syndrome causes several unpleasant symptoms. The tick meat allergy is similar to other food allergies but has some unique qualities.

One big difference is reaction time. Lots of folks with food allergies react to exposure within one hour–sometimes even within a few minutes. But with AGS, a reaction can occur anywhere from 2-6 hours after eating red meat.

Another strange difference has to do with the types of symptoms. Some people with the condition have classic food allergy symptoms like hives, nausea, swelling, and trouble breathing. But some only experience mild digestive symptoms. This makes alpha-gal syndrome tricky to diagnose.

Regardless of how severe the reaction is, one thing’s for sure. If you have AGS and experience symptoms, you should get medical help right away. An untreated allergic reaction can be not just unpleasant but deadly.

Tick in grass
Ticks may be tiny but they come with big consequences.

Does Alpha-Gal Syndrome Go Away?

Right now, there isn’t a cure for this syndrome. Those with a tick meat allergy have to manage it just like any other food allergy. Usually, this involves avoiding red meat like beef, pork, venison, rabbit, or lamb. If a person is especially sensitive, they may also need to cut out dairy or avoid products that contain alpha-gal.

People with AGS should also avoid further exposure. The syndrome can actually get worse with subsequent bites because it can reawaken the body’s immune response to alpha-gal.

The good news is that folks who suffer from the tick meat allergy sometimes go into remission. This means that over time, symptoms can become less severe. But that doesn’t mean people with alpha-gal syndrome can reintroduce bacon into their diet.

How to Prevent Alpha-Gal Syndrome

The only way to prevent getting a tick meat allergy is to avoid bites at all costs. These starred critters are the only creatures known to cause AGS. If you steer clear of them, you don’t have to worry.

Before hiking or spending time outdoors in wooded, grassy areas, take precautions. Wear a hat, long sleeves, pants, closed-toe shoes, and socks. And use insect repellent containing DEET or permethrin.

Stay on established trails when hiking or exploring a state park. If possible, avoid deep woods and high grass altogether. This will reduce your chances of picking up a bloodsucking hitchhiker.

Most importantly, always do a tick check after spending time outdoors. Shower and examine your clothes and scalp when you get home. And if you have pets, check them too. They’re likely to carry bugs inside your home.

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Avoid Ticks to Dodge the Meat Allergy

It’s safe to say that no one wants to end up with alpha-gal syndrome. The tick meat allergy may keep you from enjoying your favorite foods. Worse, if left untreated or undiagnosed, it can cause deadly allergic reactions.

To keep living your best life, be careful in dense woods and tall grass. You can make sure you don’t take them home with you and still enjoy nature, as well as your favorite foods.

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