a lone star tick on the end of a finger

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.

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  1. LB

    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.

  2. KJ

    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.

  3. JP

    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.

  4. JP

    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.

  5. Di B

    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.

  6. JP

    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

  7. CC

    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.

  8. Sue MW

    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?

  9. Mk carter

    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.

  10. Pat O.

    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.

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