a lone star tick on the end of a finger

Tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever are quite frightening enough. Since the turn of the 21st century, doctors have begun to recognize a new hazard from tick bites. It is a delayed allergic reaction to eating red meat that can provoke quite a range of symptoms. Here are some stories from our readers about this scary allergy:

Deadly Lamb Chops:

Q. I almost died from an allergic reaction to lamb chops. I was surprised when my allergist asked about ticks, but told him I had gotten into a nest of seed ticks a year ago. Now I have to avoid all meat. I carry an Epi-Pen just in case I am exposed accidentally.

I have also been avoiding cheese, since it is produced with the use of rennet, an animal product. Am I being overly cautious?

A. You are describing alpha-gal allergy, a condition that is initially triggered by a tick bite. People then develop a delayed allergic reaction to meat, including beef, pork, lamb and even venison or rabbit. Chicken, turkey and fish do not trigger the allergy, which can range from itchy hives to the type of anaphylactic reaction you experienced.

According to the lab at the University of Virginia that uncovered this condition, most patients with alpha-gal allergy are able to eat cheese without reacting. You might want to learn more about this from our one-hour interview with the lead researcher, Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills.

Lone Star Ticks Are Responsible for This Red Meat Allergy:

Q. I have two friends who have developed severe red-meat allergies, one of whom was told by his doctor that it was likely tick-bite related. What can you tell us about this?

A. The condition your friends have developed is called “alpha-gal allergy.” It is triggered by a reaction to a tick bite (Current Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology, online, June 5, 2013). The lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) is the culprit. Eating beef, pork, lamb, rabbit, venison or buffalo meat can result in a delayed anaphylactic response (3 to 6 hours later).

Children and Red Meat Allergy:

Children are increasingly susceptible and may be hard to diagnose. Children should be checked thoroughly for ticks whenever they come in from playing in woods or grassy areas. Parents and children should use an insect repellent when spending time in areas where there are likely to be ticks to prevent potential a tick bite.

Other Reports from Our Readers:

LB in Chapel Hill, NC, wrote to us:

“I, too, have the alpha-gal allergy and have been allergic to all mammalian meats for about 13 years.  A year ago, I began to react to whey but can still eat all other dairy products.  My reactions are severe: full body hives and a drop in blood pressure.  The reaction starts four hours after I have had a meat product, which of course, I no longer knowingly eat.  I have a strong reaction to tick bites.  The bite stays red and itchy for a long time-several weeks to months.”

We also heard from RW about the symptoms that plague her:

“Ticks do inflict some horrible conditions! I began having delayed anaphylactic allergic reactions to meat a few years ago and found out it was due to a tick bite! This is production of an allergic class of antibody that binds to a carbohydrate present on meat called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, also known as alpha-gal.

“My symptoms, which always occurred in the middle of the night, included hives, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, abdominal cramping, sometimes diarrhea, and twice I passed out. It took me a while to figure out what was going on because I didn’t eat meat often, but this happened almost every time I did. Finally an allergist confirmed the meat allergy, but it was another year or two before I learned about a tick bite being the cause. Now my boyfriend has it too!”

Carrie was not warned that the allergy includes any mammalian meat:

“I am 50 years old and I have recently been diagnosed with a beef allergy. I had indeed been bitten by 20 or so ticks, 2 Lone star or what we call Dog Ticks and the others Seed Ticks, several weeks prior while clearing some land. I was only told that I tested positive for beef and milk. Soon after (giving up all beef and milk) I had another severe reaction this time to pork sausage, in the middle of the night just like the first time; hands and feet burning and itching, hives over most of my body and shallow breathing.

“The Epi-Pen prescribed to me by the ER Doc saved my life. I wish that local PA’s and nursing staff were more aware of this disorder and would have told me it would include all mammal meat. I still have many questions…..If someone could point me in the direction of someone with expertise, Or put them in contact with me, regarding this disorder I would be greatly appreciative!”

M, in Charlotte, NC, had this question:

“I pulled a lone star tick off me in May. I, too, would like to get in touch with an expert who can answer some questions.

“Thanks to the People’s Pharmacy program about the lone star tick, I discovered I might be allergic to meat. I had an inexpensive test done by Dr. Platts Mills’ lab, and have a score of 0.87.

“My doctor, who previously had no awareness of alpha-gal and meat allergy, says the test indicates I have a weak allergy to meat. Does a score of 0.87 mean my hives are due to this allergy? Any stories related to the blood test scores and ranges would be appreciated.”

Liz in Kentucky responded to M:

“Any alpha gal test result above 0.35 is considered ‘positive’ according to the Viracor testing info. So, I would certainly think hives were plausible.

“Everyone reacts in different ways, so I doubt there will ever be a chart established wherein a number range correlates to severity or nature of reactions.

“I personally don’t even get hives. My throat just swells right up and I experience extreme gastro-distress. Waiting on my numbers to come in from Viracor. I react to beef, pork and whey. No problem with other dairy yet.”

We urge all our readers to wear protective clothing and/or insect repellent with either DEET or picaridin when outside in tick territory. Upon returning inside, take off the clothing and do a thorough tick check to remove them as soon as possible. And be alert to the possibility of alpha-gal allergy. North Carolina physicians have written that “patients more often discover a diagnosis of alpha-gal allergy by using information resources on their own than by presenting to the ED with anaphylaxis” (Flaherty et al, Journal of Primary Care and Community Health, April 1, 2017).

Join Over 145,000 Subscribers
at The People's Pharmacy

Get our FREE daily email newsletter with breaking health news, prescription drug information, home remedies and a preview of our award-winning radio show.

  1. SandraLeeBrown
    Reply

    I was diagnosed 2 1/2 years ago with Rocky Mtn Spttd Fever. Took 2 regimens of antibiotic. I live in central Va….the tick epicenter. There is not a day between April and Sept that I don’t come in without a tick (or several).

    I live next to the woods and have dogs and other critters (fortunately the dogs no longer get ticks because of a wonderful new med….I only wish I could take it too!!!). I even had a stuck tick in Jan this year and Dec. the year before. there is NO safe month for us humans. Mostly I just experienced the joint/muscle pain problems, but then heart palps came in also (I WAS a healthy 71 year old when this started and take no presc. drugs).

    I have been living with ticks since I was 6 years old with only one 6 year break (lived in the city). AFter reading all of the above reports, I am now considering myself fortunate not to have what they do. Thank you for showing this post.
    sandy Va May 28,2017

  2. Carol
    Durham NC
    Reply

    I was diagnosed with the alpha gal allergy in 2010. It was evident I could not eat mammalian meat but could consurme in moderation cheese, butter, and products with milk as an ingredient without a reaction.

    Two months ago I overindulged in cheesecake (2 1/2 pieces). 6 hours later I was covered in hives and decided then that I would eliminate all mammalian by products in addition to meat. In 4 days I noticed my joint and muscle aches/pains had disappeared.

    My daughter in-law, an RN, told me that any mammalian products would cause some inflammation though not necessarily enough for me to recognize.

    I feel so good now that I will never go back to consuming any mammalian foods.

  3. Clementine S. Miller
    Virginia
    Reply

    There is a great Alpha-Gal (closed for privacy group) support group on Facebook. That support group is where I learned that just like Lyme disease, the tests for Alpha-gal are not always reliable. I have had severe delayed reactions to beef, and then later all dairy products. But was negative on the test. My Lyme literate MD told me to pay more attention to my symptoms and ignore the test results. I have Epi-pen on hand. I have been able to stop my symptoms with homeopathic Histaminum 1M strength or even the 200C strength.

  4. Will T
    Uganda
    Reply

    There is in Uganda a similar allergy that I suspect is also from tick bites where suddenly people from villages become allurgic to red meat.
    Interestingly there is also a local herb that after eating it seems to cure the allurgy. The person has a craving for red meat and no longer is aklurgic to red meat. I only know of one case where the cure has not worked.

  5. LB
    Reply

    I, too, have the alpha-gal allergy and have been allergic to all mammalian meats for about 13 years. A year ago, I began to react to whey but can still eat all other dairy products. My reactions are severe, full body hives and a drop in blood pressure. The reaction starts four hours after I have had a meat product, which of course, I no longer knowingly eat. I have a strong reaction to tick bites. The bite stays red and itchy for a long time–several weeks to months. I live in Chapel Hill, NC.

  6. KJ
    Reply

    JP, it’s good that you are sharing your history and current allergy status, as more people need to understand just how extensive and potentially deadly this allergy can be – it involves so much more, for a growing number of people, than “just” avoiding beef and pork. A total life-changer. Your experience is remarkably similar to mine. I developed the red meat allergy (beef and pork) some 11 years ago, figured it out on my own after 3 to 4 months of GI reactions and then a trip to the ER, and a bout that left me unconscious at home, but somehow recovered on my own.
    Three years ago, same as you, I had numerous bites from seed (and adult) ticks; six weeks later, severe anaphylaxis and closer to death than I had ever been or ever want to be again, until it’s really time for me to “go to the other side”…
    Since the tick bites three years ago, I developed reactions to the whole range of mammal foods and byproducts in processed foods, medicines, pharmaceuticals, skin care – even my hair spray! I avoid all the things you do, have quit eating in restaurants except on very rare occasions;the last time was over a year ago, as even inhaling meat juices (aerosolizing as they cook) can cause a reaction.
    I now cook all my own meals from scratch (the way we all used to eat!) except for purchases of a select, small group of dairy-free or vegan prepared foods, almost exclusively from manufacturers who have confirmed by phone or email that their products are safe for me. My vigilance has kept me from having another life-threatening reaction, although I have had less severe reactions and a few scares.
    The only “cure” for this allergy is complete avoidance of the foods or byproducts that set you off. There has been some anecdotal evidence that the allergy lessens in severity over time, as long as you are not bitten by ticks again, and some people have found they can resume eating some mammal foods in some measure. There is no definitive “marker” (i.e., your blood test results) that would provide complete assurance that no allergic reactions would occur, so this re-trying of food can be risky, and for people like me, far too risky to contemplate.
    I don’t really care to know if I can eat cheese, or hamburger, or a marshmallow, again. I just want to stay safe and well.

  7. JP
    Reply

    Reacting to eggs, poultry is a different allergy. People with tick-induced alpha-Gal allergy develop react to alpha-galactosidase present in all mammals except ancient/great apes and humans. It is also a delayed anaphylaxis/reaction that happens 4 -12 hrs after eating mammalian meat.

  8. JP
    Reply

    All mammalian meat (wild venison/deer or rabbit, organic or feed-lot produced cattle/steak) will make you react if you have the alpha-Gal antibody after being bitten by ticks. There is some yet-to-be-proved research that says meat with a high level of fat can give a worst reaction but I stress that this is not yet proved.
    Many people with alpha-Gal also react to gelatin, and other mammalian meat by-product. Others also become allergic to dairy and/or whey – but not all.

  9. Di B
    Reply

    This allergy is so newly recognized, and people are just discovering that there is a real reason for their mysterious malady. Some people with alpha gal are discovering they now have multiple allergies, now that they have alpha gal. There is no one-size-fits-all.
    Also, plant based pill capsules for medications are readily available. So meds can be gotten in them. It is just not a straight-forward process. We have to ask lots of questions.

  10. JP
    Reply

    I have alpha-Gal allergy after being bitten by about 30 seed or nymph ticks three years ago. About 10 days later, six hours after eating a steak, I had complete cardiac arrest as result of severe anaphylaxis. I almost died. Suspected culprit is the tick. A year later I ate pasta sauce that I didn’t know have beef stock in it, and five hours late I had complete respiratory collapse – as a result of this I almost died three times in one hour. Blood pressure dropped to 60 over 40.
    I am now allergic to all milk, cheese whey – dairy; gelatin, and any mammalian meat or byproduct. I need to check all food and medications carefully before eating/taking. The casing on may capsule tablets is gelatin. Other meds can include lanolin (sheep fleece grease – such as in most Vitamin D tabs.
    If you get sick after eating mammalian meat (deer, rabbit, beef lamb etc) – check with you pharmacist about Alpha-Gal allergy and mammalian bi-product in medication you are prescribed or buy off the shelf.
    People with alpha-Gal allergy can eat eggs, poultry, fish (feathers and fins). If you react to these you have another allergic reaction occurring.
    Tick induced anaphylaxis needs more research. People are at risk wherever in the world there are ticks. Be careful in grassy and wooded areas – esp when weather is damp or after rainy weather. Ticks hate drought conditions.
    Go to http://www.tiara.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Tiara_tick_11_2_13.pdf
    There is an alpha-gal Facebook page

  11. CC
    Reply

    I read about tick bites and the alpha-gal allergy late spring/early summer of this year in the People’s Pharmacy column, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. September I was exposed to massive chigger bites, massive meaning I gave up counting at 300 bites. In researching everything I could find on chigger bites, I came across more info on the alpha-gal allergy that I first learned of in your news column, specifically that the allergy was also found in some who were exposed to chigger bites!
    After 2 weeks on prednisone, what I thought was a bull’s eye rash typical to the deer tick bite that causes Lyme Disease appeared on my leg. Twice cursed, back to the doctor, and am on preventative medical regimen for tick bite vs spider bite. Blood test for Lyme Disease can be done in 90 days, and fortunately I’m aware of the possibility of alpha-gal from chigger bites, the symptoms, and the blood test for it via info on websites from University of Virginia and Dr. Platts-Mills.
    Years ago in nursing school, I heard in lecture that pharmacists are a good secondary source of information in the community setting, but times have changed and they now are sometimes THE primary source. Medical practitioners admit not having been aware of alpha-gal allergy and its source. The People’s Pharmacy column was a red flag to me prior to my exposure; to be forewarned is be forearmed. We can go into treatment as an informed patient. In gratitude to your profession, I thank you for allowing me to comment.

  12. Sue MW
    Reply

    I, too, had a severe hive reaction after eating a hamburger. I prepared the burger myself, using organic beef with no other additives. I have since had very mild reactions after eating a small steak and a piece of prime rib. Does anyone know if organic meat carries a higher level of alpha-gal?

  13. Mk carter
    Reply

    I suddenly began to have an allergic reaction to poultry, sometimes eggs but always the flesh. I get swollen throat and tongue and must quickly take benedril.
    Is there any available research or evidence of a similar reaction originating from insect bites? Beef does not bother me.

  14. Pat O.
    Reply

    I have experienced this phenomena for several years and am pleased to have it identified. I would eat beef, lamb or pork and within 3 hours develop hives and itching starting at midsection and gradually traveling to extremities, even scalp, and sometimes having difficulty breathing. As a mild asthmatic, I had emergency inhaler and used that and benedryl. I also experienced some nausea and bowel looseness. It would last a few hours, then I was fine again.
    I thought it was perhaps additives to the meat causing it, as my first few incidents were involving restaurant food. However experimenting with grass fed, no hormones and no antibiotic treated beef, still I experienced the reaction.
    Again, thanks for identifying the possible reason for this. I do live in the country and woody area and have experienced several tick bites over the years. Needless to say, I rarely eat red meat. However I continue to hope that eventually I may outlive the allergy, so occasionally try again.

What Do You Think?

We invite you to share your thoughts with others, but remember that our comment section is a public forum. Please do not use your full first and last name if you want to keep details of your medical history anonymous. A first name and last initial or a pseudonym is acceptable. Advice from other commenters on this website is not a substitute for medical attention. Do not stop any medicine without checking with the prescriber. Stopping medication suddenly could result in serious harm. We expect comments to be civil in tone and language. By commenting, you agree to abide by our commenting policy and website terms & conditions. Comments that do not follow these policies will not be posted.