a lone star tick on the end of a finger

Q. One evening five weeks ago, I had a weird allergic reaction. I hadn’t had any supper or taken any medicine, so my hives were puzzling. But I had had a hamburger for lunch. And I often get tick bites.
Three days later, I read your column about alpha-gal allergy and knew immediately it was what I had. My physician had never heard of alpha-gal. He sent me to an allergist who had never seen it either. A blood test revealed an antibody level of 5.48; anything over 0.35 is positive. Without your column–who knows?–I could have landed in the hospital.

A. Alpha-gal allergy is so peculiar that even many doctors don’t know much about it. The condition is triggered by the bite of a lone-star tick, and it results in a delayed but potentially very serious reaction to eating meat. Some sufferers experience digestive distress, hives, difficulty breathing or anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis can be lethal.
Once a person has been sensitized, the only solution is to avoid beef, pork, lamb and any other sort of mammalian meat. Chicken and fish are fine. Some people carry prescription epinephrine (EpiPen) in case of accidental exposure. There’s more information about alpha-gal allergy at PeoplesPharmacy.com.

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  1. becky j.

    Thanks LG. I recently came across the University of Virginia research and this link includes info about how to order the test from your own doctor. You may have to pay out-of-pocket, but it’s not too expensive.
    Blessings for good health!

  2. LG

    In answer to a couple of questions above:
    1. The blood test doesn’t have to be done during or right after the reaction. Whatever it is in the blood remains there and you don’t have to eat meat again in order to get an accurate reading. In fact, best to avoid meat.
    2. UNC Allergy and Immunology does the test and the doctor I saw, Maya Jerath, is terrific. I find out the results next week. I got in to see her without a long wait. The test itself takes 3 weeks to come back.
    Coincidentally, I spoke with a colleague who had been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, which is a thyroid autoimmune disorder. Head to toe hives is a symptom of this as well, so for those of you whose Alph-gal test shows up negative, you might consider this. Good luck, everyone. I don’t mind going mammalian meatless but I would like to know if there are things I need to avoid as you need to be careful to read labels. For example, chicken sausage is often packed in pork casings.

  3. becky j.

    Great info as always! Does anyone know do you have to eat meat for the Alpha Gal antibody allergy test to be accurate, or can I remain off meat and get tested?

  4. Joy

    Read the UNC comments. I went to Duke while having an allergic reaction and had a similar experience. They did not know what to code the blood test, so they would not perform the blood draw. According to my reading, a blood draw has to be done during a reaction for diagnosis? I also called the largest allergist practice in my area, and they recommended Duke or UNC. Not much help. No treatment, but I can always just avoid beef. I miss it, but it’s not worth the allergic reaction. I’ve actually felt better all the way around after eliminating beef from my diet altogether.

  5. Amanda B.

    I have suffered from this condition for over a decade now. I have been laughed at and scrutinized for my self-diagnosis in this serious situation each and every occurrence. After the first few attacks from this , not knowing what was happening, I had drawn my own conclusion to it being red meat and or pork causing my severe stomach pains, swelling, trouble breathing, hives, etc. And quickly learned to avoid these foods at all costs!!!
    However, others should be aware (ones affected by this dietary restriction AND those who host/entertain meals for these persons) that the reaction to food consumption goes beyond just eating and is as severe as the proper foods (ie: chicken, fish) being prepared on contaminated surface or utensils having been used on other food products as well. This has posed the largest threat to myself when eating out in a restaurant or at a relative/friends home. And recently, discovered why an attack always happened after eating at a certain restaurant even though speaking to a manager/cook prior to ordering my food choice… It hadn’t dawned on the manager/cook that their baked potatoes were soaked in bacon grease for flavoring…
    As a sufferer of this food allergy/condition, an attack is not only very uncomfortable but extremely scary- a feeling of suffocation and extreme pain without any relief. I had had every abdominal test performed from upper G.I.’s , to endoscopes, to colonoscopys, to radical radon pellet Imaging… After none of these tests showed any results to a medical answer, I was left with the feeling of being insane and just finally knew I couldn’t eat these foods whether there was a medical explanation or not.
    People often say to me, I’d die without being able to ever eat a burger or pork steak again- my response is simply… I feel like I am dying if I even took a small taste. I am happy to see that there is finally someone studying this peculiar dietary allergic reaction, THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH, Amanda B.

  6. LSG

    I recently experienced what I believe is this allergy after eating a hamburger and will be tested this week. I ended up at the ER because I was traveling the next day and was concerned that it was Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and I should stay home. A friend reminded me of a mutual friend who had this and I knew I had been bitten by a Lone Star tick, and in fact had brought the tick to the ER with me.
    The ER staff was unaware of the meat allergy possibility and seemed more amused than intrigued, in spite of my showing them a journal article on my smart phone by the Virginia researcher who has been in the lead on this issue. This was at UNC, no less, where a doctor in the allergy department is also at the forefront of this research. We need a systematic way of alerting ER staff to this possibility, since for some people it could be life threatening if they don’t know they should avoid meat. The head-to-toe hives were absolutely miserable.

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