The People's Perspective on Medicine

Chigger Bites May Trigger Alpha-Gal Allergy to Red Meat

Do you get sick after eating red meat? Abdominal pain, diarrhea, hives or breathing problems are symptoms of alpha-gal allergy. Ticks bites and now chigger bites may trigger this nasty reaction.

Have you ever been bitten by chiggers? Some people barely notice such bites. Others, like me, are highly allergic to such attacks. We develop severe itching along with nasty blisters that can take weeks to heal. Now there is a new threat from chiggers, also known as red bugs, berry bugs, harvest mites and harvest lice. Chigger bites may impact the immune system to develop a serious allergic reaction to red meat. This is known as an alpha-gal allergy.

Spaghetti and Meat Balls Lead to a Mysterious Reaction

Imagine the following scenario: You sit down to a dinner of spaghetti and meat balls around 7:00 pm. You’ve been this comfort food for decades and have never experienced any problems.

But this night you awaken around 2:00 am. You are covered with hives and you have to make a mad dash to the bathroom because of stomach cramps and severe diarrhea. Soon you are experiencing breathing difficulties. You call 911 for emergency assistance. At the hospital the emergency physician asks what you were doing prior to this attack. Your answer is not helpful. You were peacefully sleeping.

Unbeknownst to you, a tick bite eight weeks earlier (that you were unaware of) led to an immune reaction to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (alpha-gal). Eating the meatballs triggered an alpha-gal allergy several hours later. You are now severely allergic to burgers, hot dogs, barbecue, steaks and all other mammal meat.

Alpha-Gal Allergy

Many people find it hard to believe that a tick bite could make them allergic to red meat. It has taken almost a decade for health professionals to recognize this bizarre reaction. In the early days, many patients who showed up at emergency departments in severe distress were misdiagnosed. That’s because the reaction is often delayed. Most of these people never had an allergy to meat prior to the tick bite.

Chigger Bites and Alpha-Gal Allergy:

Chigger bites, like tick bites, may trigger a life-threatening reaction to meat. Allergists have known for a decade that some people react to the bite of a lonestar tick by developing an alpha-gal allergy. In this condition, the person has a delayed reaction to eating beef, pork or other mammalian meat, such as bison.

Hours after eating a burger or steak, the person may develop hives or even difficulty breathing and anaphylaxis. The delayed reaction has made alpha-gal allergy challenging to diagnose, but doctors now recognize that it can be the result of a tick bite.

Clinicians at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and the University of Virginia report that a small percentage of people with alpha-gal allergy have not had a tick bite but do recall chigger bites (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice, Sept. 2018). They call for further studies to confirm the connection.

These investigators caution their colleagues:

“…allergists should be aware that patients may report ‘chigger’ bites, and based on that fact alone should not dismiss alpha-gal sensitization as a possible diagnosis.”

Protect Yourself from Chiggers and Ticks!

Ticks carry a lot of nasty microbes. You do not want to be bitten! And chiggers cause a great deal of discomfort just by the nature of their bites. Now that the possibility has been raised that bites could lead to alpha-gal allergy, we suggest that you protect yourself before hiking. There are effective repellents you can spray on shoes, socks and pants legs. You can also wear protective clothing.

We have been impressed with Outdoor Research Trail Gaiters. They go on over your shoes and socks and help keep ticks and other biting insects away from your skin.

Don’t Mess Around with Alpha-Gal Allergy!

Anyone who develops abdominal pain, diarrhea, hives or difficulty breathing several hours after eating meat should seek immediate medical attention. Even if you do not remember being bitten by a tick, a severe allergic reaction requires emergency treatment!

Learn more about alpha-gal allergy at this link.

Share your own story below in the comment section.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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I was bitten by chiggers, from my ankles to my knees, when helping someone take their belongings out of a storage shed with dirt floor. Ever since, I’ve had horrible burning in my muscles and hot/cold flashes. I wonder if this could have anything to do with it. I never even knew what a chigger was until that happened and the itching and rash lasted over a month. My dermatologist diagnosed me with chiggers and poison oak. She never mentioned a connection to Alpha-Gal. Could my symptoms be related? I had two engorged tick bites several years ago. I was never treated because I thought they were just innocent dog ticks. Now, I’m beginning to wonder because I have such strange symptoms.

I am also skeptical that these are chigger bites, as it is hard to distinguish between seed tick bites and chiggers. However, I would like to know what is an immediate treatment in the case someone does wake up in the middle of the night with that reaction? Benedryl? Or is there a natural alternative? (I personally would rather not rush to call 911 before handling it myself if I could.) Thank You

Wow Some grumpy people responding this go round
I appreciate the work you do Your suggestions re: soy sauce and purple onions have saved me from several bad burns

Is the allergy permanent? Can it be cured?

I realize it is a challenge reading all ingredients but those of us who have this allergy need to be meticulous. Some of us also are allergic to dairy as well. After speaking at length to the husband of a fellow sufferer he told me his wife was even affected by cornmeal due to mouse feces assumed contacted during storage. Even gelatin capsules can be a trigger for some of us so I buy vegetable ones and switch contents when necessary. I was diagnosed at UVA in Charlottesville Va. I never got hives or had itching but severe gastrointestinal symptoms. I think it was a few years before I figured it out on my own and only went to UVA to convince doctors that I had this and sure enough the test came back positive.

My husband was “bitten” (apparently it’s the shell not a bite) by a carpet beetle and broke out in a rash. Within a couple of days, many foods began triggering hives on his body. Meat was one of the few foods, including steak, that does not do this, yet the allergist he saw said my husband tested positive for alpha-gal. My layperson analysis is that the food allergies are very much related to the carpet beetle, but the allergist said they are “genetic.” Hmm… awfully coincidental.

I have a question, can this response happen to dogs as well?

Why do you think that CDC does not list Alpha Gal as a tick borne illness?

Without additional evidence, I seriously question any direct link. It seems obvious that chigger bites correlate with exposure to an environment where ticks also occur and tick bites are often overlooked.

Headline “Chiggers”, then in the article in quickly changes to ticks, hello these are two totally different organisms . Who writes these articles and it ruin’s the validity of the article .

James,
Did you read the article? It was clear to me that the article was referencing two parasites; both chiggers and ticks. The article states that chiggers seem to be able to trigger alpha-gal in the same way that it is already accepted that ticks trigger alpha-gal.
It wasn’t difficult to understand.

How about the rest of the story?
–What institutes are studying desensitization techniques?
–What institutes are studying immunization techniques?

You do the readers a disservice by scaring them with the consequences without providing any hope.

I question that these chiggers are actually deer tick lava.
First stage you can not see them but you can feel thrm. After feeding on you they are the size of a period.
I found peppermint oil spray work well on keeping them off. If i forget and feel them I use a lint sticky roller on my skin to get them. You cam then see the tiny dots on the white sticky paper.

My question would be, what microbes are being researched as the root cause for this sudden allergy that might be common to both ticks and chiggers.

Thank you “C”. That’s a great idea since essential oil works very good on this type of problem.

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