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.
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.
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