When a new health threat emerges, it can sometimes take time before it is widely recognized and acknowledged. Sensitivity to a mammalian sugar called alpha gal can cause a life-threatening allergy. Health care providers are still learning about it.
Q. I have alpha-gal allergy that has put me in the emergency room on several occasions. The last time my blood pressure was dropping rapidly, and the ER staff administered an EpiPen. It was a jolt, but it brought me back. My primary care physician thinks this is all a bunch of hokum.
What Is Alpha-Gal Allergy?
A. Some doctors have been skeptical about alpha-gal allergy because it is unlike typical food allergies. A bite from a lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) sensitizes the individual to a compound found in meat known as alpha gal.
Symptoms of an Alpha-Gal Reaction:
Someone with alpha gal sensitization can experience a life-threatening allergy reaction hours after eating beef, pork, lamb, venison, bison or any other mammalian meat. Symptoms may include hives, itching, digestive distress (nausea, indigestion, diarrhea), difficulty breathing and low blood pressure. This medical emergency requires immediate care.
The long delay between exposure and symptoms as well as the range of symptoms makes this reaction quite unlike other food allergies. Another peculiarity of the alpha-gal reaction is that it does not happen on every exposure. This also could contribute to physicians’ skepticism.
Preventing Alpha-Gal Reactions:
The only way to prevent such a reaction is to scrupulously avoid meat. Chicken or other fowl and any type of fish do not trigger alpha-gal reactions. People who are exceptionally sensitive may also need to avoid milk, cheese and other dairy products. Gelatin is derived from mammals and it too could trigger a reaction. This condition is not “hokum.”
Learning More About Alpha-Gal Allergy:
You may want to share some of the recent medical publications on alpha-gal allergy with your primary care physician. US doctors are not the only ones who have noted this problem. Here are case reports from Switzerland (European Journal of Dermatology, online Nov. 21, 2016), a review from Sweden (Allergo Journal International, online March 23, 2016) and research from Austria (Allergy, June 4, 2016). Perhaps the most useful publications, however, are by the doctors who first identified alpha-gal allergy: Scott Commins, MD (Current Allergy and Asthma Reports, Sep., 2016) and Thomas Platts-Mills, MD (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, June, 2016).
You may be interested in listening to our interview with Dr. Platts-Mills of the University of Virginia. In the same show we also interviewed a patient whose experience has been similar to yours, Mike Beck, along with his physician, Maya Jerath, MD, of the University of North Carolina. We have discussed alpha-gal allergy in some of our other radio shows as well: Show 1003 and Show 1031.
This life-threatening allergy has been noted more frequently in the South and Southeast, where lone star ticks are especially common. As the ticks spread to other parts of the country, however, alpha-gal allergy has become more common there as well. It is crucial that physicians learn to recognize it.