a lone star tick on the end of a finger

In some parts of the country, emergency room physicians have been faced with a puzzling scenario: the patient awakens in the middle of the night with unbearable itching, hives, low blood pressure or trouble breathing. Usually, such an anaphylactic reaction is an immediate response to an exposure like an insect sting. But these people have been in bed for hours.

We talk with a patient who had this frightening experience and with the allergist who treated him. We also learn about the discovery of this improbable allergy to red meat, triggered by the bite of a tick.

The Guests:

Mike Beck is a health and welfare consultant with Hill, Chesson & Woody.

Maya Jerath, MD, PhD, is Mike’s doctor. She is director of the UNC Allergy and Immunology Clinic and assistant professor in Division of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

Thomas Platts-Mills, MD, is professor of medicine and microbiology at the University of Virginia and head of the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. He is past president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI). You can find an abstract of his May, 2011, article here.

Listen to the Podcast

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Air Date:August 3, 2013

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  1. William Thompson
    Entebbe Uganda

    I live in Uganda and know several Ugandans that have developed a severe allergy to red meat.
    The locals have a herb they eat and are cured the next day. Some also claim they now have a craving for red meat for a short while after recovering from the allergy.

    I have tried to contact specialists in Australia that have written articles on the tick and the allergy with not one answer except a single computer reply.

    I do not know if or not it is the same disease but I do know that the herb works in most cases and obviously the herb is not poisonous.

    If you know someone that is interested in seriously investigating and is qualified if or not this herb is the cure.

    Will Thompson

  2. Terri

    My IgE tests were negative for allergies to beef, pork, milk, alpha-gal. My skin tests were positive for beef, pork and some other minor allergies to dogs, pollen, trees, grasses. I avoided beef, pork for 4.5 months and got another unexpected attack. I think it was butter.

    I cut out anything with butter, milk fat, buttermilk in it. I’m drinking Fairlife milk which is triple strained to get rid of sugars/fats and haven’t had a reaction. The weird thing is that my reactions occur within 15-25 min. after eating.

    My doctor says I wasn’t bit by a tick. About 2 months before my first severe reaction I’d received a vaccine which I had a bad reaction from. My arm was red, hot and swollen from my shoulder to my elbow. I ran a low grade fever for a week and felt sick. The rash, pain and swelling lasted 2 weeks. Then, 2 months after that I had my first reaction with diarrhea, stomach pain and feeling like passing out.

    I was misdiagnosed with Gastroenteritis and two weeks later I had another severe reaction that was even worse. It took over a month to get an allergy appointment which caused me to have several more bouts of anaphylaxis. The quality of my life has gone downhill. I’m very disgusted at the improper treatment at my local ER. They failed to recognize my first 2 attacks. They refuse to give me oxygen and fluids every time even though I’m showing that I’m low on oxygen, ECG shows heart rhythm problems, hypotension, diarrhea.

    When they failed to initially diagnose anaphylaxis, I was extremely hypotensive and dehydrated for an hour before I broke out in hives and then they finally gave me an epi injection. I had Tachycardia and bradycardia for 6 weeks after leaving the ER along with terrible short term memory loss.

  3. Tom Cribbs
    Murfreesboro, TN

    I too have the Alfa gal allergy. I am interested to know if the fat content from the red meat and dairy increases the severity of the reaction. I only have reactions to dairy that are high in fat content. Also the leaner the beef and pork the less problems I have. A hamburger will send me to the moon!

    • Sjudy
      Central nj

      I just want people in nj to know I went to the private practice of the head of hospital allergy/immunology dept , Monmouth County, and he said idiopathic anaphalactic. Went to another dr in the group,not the head dr ,and she took the time to listen and then test for Alpha Gal …. BINGO ………so how does someone get to be the head of a dept and does or cares less then an up and coming dr ?????? At least I now know and can prevent further attacks……….just saying

    • Sjudy
      Central nj

      I just want people in nj to know I went to the private practice of the head of hospital allergy/immunology dept , Monmouth County, and he said idiopathic anaphalactic. Went to another dr in the group,not the head dr ,and she took the time to listen and then test for Alpha Gal …. BINGO ………so how does someone get to be the head of a dept and does or cares less then an up and coming dr ?????? At least I now know and can prevent further attacks……….just saying

      • Mike

        Was diagnosed with Alpha Gal last June (’17) after my VA doc wanted to know why I needed epi-pen in my scrips. Told her I had an allergy to something that caused the hives and extreme itching and needed epi-pen to relieve symptoms. Allergy doc ordered blood test and BINGO! alpha gal. Have had a minor reaction to a Banquet tv dinner – Salisbury steak patty, of all things – not even a prime rib or ribeye! Going for followup next week with the doc who has the latest blood test to decipher. nothing we can do to mitigate our ailment? Drug companies aren’t gonna spend millions to research for a drug to alleviate an uncommon disease.

        • Lessandra

          You can save yourself a lot of time and money by not eating any mammal meat or dairy products. Listen to your intuition and your body – it will tell you more than the doctors. I have been aware of having alpha gal for over three years, first with just meat and then dairy products. Every now and then I’ll decide just to try a tiny piece of a dessert that has butter in it, and within 10 or 15 minutes feels like I’m going to pass out – a terrible feeling comes over me. So I don’t think this allergy wears off with time.

  4. Mike
    Southeastern US

    If you are a Veteran with this condition, you CAN, with persistence get the VA to recognize this condition. I don’t think that you will be able to get any disability rating for it, but they will pay for the tests and and give you epi-pens and benadryl. It took over 14 months of visiting, writing and phoning both the VA and my Senator, but eventually they gave in. Don’t allow the Fee Based Clerks to snow you – keep fighting. (I had one Fee-Based Clerk tell me that if I persisted that I might lose my pension….)

  5. Trey
    Tulsa, OK

    Why and who is doing research to find a cure to this?????? There are now thousands of people afflicted by this, and no one has found a resolution yet….. Very disappointing…..

  6. cgc

    I’ve known to avoid mammalian meat (and mm products – cheese, butter, milk, etc.) for 3.5 years. Prior to that my diagnosis was ‘idiopathic anaphylaxsis’. My current concerns center on medications that contain mammalian meat products such as gelatin, lactose, etc…. gelatin is used as a heat protectant in flu vaccines and Spireva(sp?) to name just 2 medicines.
    Listening to the August 2013 radio broadcast, could the cancer drug mentioned contain mammalian meat products/product?
    Is this even an issue? If so, is any data available? Is the allergy only evidenced digestively?
    Because none of my physicians (including 2 allergists) can conclusively answer my questions, I’m leery of most medications.
    Any advice or information sources?
    People’s Pharmacy response: The cancer drug mentioned doesn’t contain mammalian meat products, but it does contain a sugar very similar to the one that causes the reaction. Your questions are excellent, but we don’t think any research exists to answer them.

    • Jimmie

      I have had the alpha gal syndrome for almost two years. I was undiagnosed for 8 months and almost died from a flu shot. Finally diagnosed myself when I had a sneezing fit 3 hours after eating a pork chop. I never have sneezing unless outside exposure and had not been our all day. I googled– can you be allergic to pork and have sneezing fit? The answer gave me all the information about alpha gal.

      What a relief to finally know how to avoid the terrible reactions. It’s not easy because ingredients are not always available. I am down to about one minor reaction a week,. And major reaction once a month. Thank God for Google!

  7. Julie E.

    I am 19 years old and have had this allergy for almost two years now and am constantly finding new things I outbreak too. In the beginning I had a hard time eating peanut butter products and red dye. Now I am finding that I am allergic to vinegar as well. I just don’t understand this allergy. It is so unpredictable. Recently, I have noticed that when I become sick (flu, stomach bug) I have an outbreak the next day even though I have eaten nothing for almost 24 hours. Anyone else experience this?

  8. cgc

    It’s important to refer to this as an allergy to ‘mammalian’ meat rather than an allergy to ‘red’ meat. The word ‘mammalian’ (any animal that nurses it’s young) is specific to meat that is off limits.
    I will always miss a good rib eye steak, Lexington style BBQ, cheese and butter but feel so good and healthy without these foods in my diet. Cheese and butter don’t cause an anaphylactic response but do negatively affect my digestion process.

    • Kaylee n M

      I just have resently became allergic to dairy because of a tick bite. I have not ate dairy in 2 days and still have outbreaks.

  9. RP

    My mother has had this allergy for approximately 27 years. I have had it for 20 years, my wife for 15 and we know numerous friends and acquaintances who are afflicted. Very glad to hear the subject is gaining wider notice and understanding.
    While I miss consuming all red meats my dietary shift has been accommodated by the growing choice of alternative protien sources. I must admit that because of this affliction I have become better informed about nutrition and the food chain. The ill-treatment of animals including fowl for mass production has become distasteful. The wide use of antibiotics and growth hormones is a concern as well. I feel I owe the tick a debt of gratitude by forcing on me this reevaluation.

  10. Lea

    My allergist had my alpha gal test done and I live in NW Arkansas. It took almost 8 days, but she knew automatically what it was.

  11. gs

    Was I ever blown away from the 8/3 radio program on this subject. However, no one has mentioned one of my symptoms, which is dry/numb mouth which began 1/30/13 and has not yet abated entirely. Sometimes it is worse than others, notice it especially after meals (anything.) But within 30 days of this presentation, 2/24/13, I woke up with angio-edema on lower face, mouth, tongue and roof of mouth. I looked like I had had Botox injections. Off to Urgent-Care at 9:00 am and the first thing dr said was “what did you eat last night?” Only a hamburger (I made), nothing unusual.
    12 days of predisone later (and benadryl once a day at night for some time) and no episode like that again. Neck itching I have had off and on for years, and that was/is still occasionally prevalent. I have eaten meat for years — before and since this — without this severe reaction, but did have a tick bite last summer which was on the back of my ankle for over 24 hrs and not easy to remove. It did itch, and now there is a small, hard kernel under the skin where the wound was. I want to know where to get the blood-test for Alpha-Gal. Dr mentioned UVA had a patent on it. Do you have to go to UVA? I live in Roanoke, VA.
    People’s Pharmacy response: Your doctor will need to inquire about the test.

  12. D.L.N.

    Remember to mention that that rat or mice cells in prescription drugs can cause the reaction and if they are injected like they were to me (I have the allergy), the reaction is immediate. I got a very bad reaction to an injectable drug and it was immediate so we need to be careful of this reaction as well. This was the first time I had to go to the hospital for the allergy.

  13. LG

    I live in the Triangle as well, and I went to see Dr. Jerath who is featured in this broadcast, she is at UNC. she says that most people with this can tolerate dairy, which is obviously also a mammalian product, but not everyone can.
    I know someone with alpha gal who consumed dairy regularly without problems until one day when he had an anaphylactic reaction. Sounds like you may also have trouble with it. I avoid dairy because I feel better when I do and I don’t want to risk any more terrible reactions like I had for years until I heard the original broadcast of this show which literally changed my life.

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