a lone star tick on the end of a finger

Imagine waking up in the middle of the night with itchy hives all over your body. You might also find you were having trouble breathing. A trip to the ER could safe your life, but the cause of your mysterious ailment might not be diagnosed.

People who have had such a scary episode are usually questioned about their exposure to an allergen just before the reaction started. In most cases, they were sound asleep. No obvious triggers are apparent.

A medical detective, Thomas Platts-Mills, MD, uncovered the cause of these delayed allergic reactions (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, online March 19, 2014). The culprit is a lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum). The tick’s bite can trigger a chain reaction that results in allergic reactions three to seven hours after eating meat (beef, pork, lamb or other mammals). The time delay and the two-step process (first tick bite, then allergy to alpha-gal sugars in meat) explain why this problem may not be diagnosed promptly.

Alpha-Gal Could Be Deadly

One visitor to our website recounted this terrifying experience:

“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 a result of severe anaphylaxis. I almost died.

“A year later I ate pasta sauce that I didn’t know had beef stock in it, and five hours later I had complete respiratory collapse. As a result, I almost died three times in one hour. My blood pressure dropped to 60 over 40.

“I am now allergic to milk, cheese, whey and other dairy products as well as gelatin and any mammalian meat or by-product. I need to check all food and medications carefully before eating or taking them. The casing on many capsules is gelatin and could send me into anaphylaxis.”

There is a blood test that can help with diagnosis of alpha-gal allergy. Another reader shared his frustration at having been ignored for years:

“I have had serious allergic reactions for almost 20 years and have almost died three times. Despite this, doctors told me that my allergies (to beef, pork or lamb) were all in my head.

“When I needed open-heart surgery, I mentioned my allergies. The surgeon sent my blood to the University of Virginia, and I was diagnosed with alpha-gal allergy.”

The only known solution to this unusual and potentially deadly reaction is to carefully avoid all meat from mammals. That means no burgers, hot dogs, bacon, steak, lamb chops, ribs or other common cookout fare. Chicken and fish are fine, however.

To learn more about this unusual condition, you may be interested in listening to our hour-long radio interview with Dr. Platts-Mills as well as a young man with alpha-gal allergy and the allergist who diagnosed him. Find it here.

Preventing tick bites whenever possible with protective clothing and careful inspections is the first step in avoiding alpha-gal allergy. The next is to be aware that a delayed reaction to meat could be a signal of a serious problem.

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  1. Elizabeth

    I’ve had idiopathic urticaria for 12 years. Six years ago I found out I’m allergic to dairy, but after eliminating dairy my reactions did not stop. Six weeks ago I was diagnosed with alpha-galactose allergy. My reactions still have not subsided, although I have avoided all mammal meat and by products. While studying holistic anatomy I learned that our liver converts all sugars and starches to glucose, making glucose the only sugar found in the blood stream. This make sense why our bodies would see alpha-gal as an invader; it’s not the type of sugar that’s normally found in the blood stream. So here’s my big question: why would vaccines that contain alpha-gal not cause the antibodies and therefore the allergy? When you think about it, vaccines are going straight into the blood stream. I do not believe a tick bite is to blame, at least not 100% of the time. My reactions started after I received a hepatitis vaccine, which was required when I worked in restaurants.

    • Fran
      North Carolina

      OMGosh My reaction came after I got a Tetanus and Typhoid Vaccine. mind you it was a mistake she did not need to give this to me, since I had been bitten by a horse( small little spot ) and it might get infected. But she gave me a vaccine that I did not need.
      I raise horses and when they get Vaccinations I have the lab number attached to their records just in case. I thought the Dr could check the vaccine number to see if there was a problem with that batch, no one has answered me. And she was transferred to a new facitlity..

    • Terry Graedon

      Great question, to which we do not have the answer. It will be important for those with alpha-gal allergy to ask this question of their doctors before accepting the new vaccine. The traditional vaccine based on chicken eggs should not pose any unusual danger.

  2. anon

    An allergy to beef and pork is not so unusual in North Carolina. I know several people with it, including me. I did not develop this allergy until after many tick bites and a long ordeal with untreated Lyme Disease. Now, I can’t have beef, pork or dairy in my diet. I had wondered why there were so many cases of this allergy in this state.

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