Tick Bite Causes Human Allergic Reaction When Eating Red Meat

If you enjoy eating venison backstraps, or a juicy beef burger, you’ll want to avoid being bit by a lone star tick.

Erika Cochran | March 1, 2017

While you enjoy your springtime pursuit for a gobbler, you may be joined by a small critter that will try and hang around for a while.

The lone star tick is the most common tick in the Southeast, and it’s the only tick in the United States to carry the tick-bite-induced red meat allergy. All lone star ticks contain the sugar that can precipitate the red meat allergy. However, there are two other ticks that are in Europe and Australia that carry this allergen.

The lone star tick, which mostly lives close to the ground, carries a sugar called alpha-gal, a sugar also found in red meat. As soon as the tick is embedded in the skin, it transfers its saliva, which includes this sugar, into your body. As a result, your body uses antibodies to fight off the saliva and alpha-gal sugar. Therefore, those who acquire the alpha-gal allergy by a tick bite will have an allergic reaction to red meat. The allergy is specific to mammalian meat, which is meat that comes from a mammal.

Dr. Scott Commins, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine and Pediatrics at University of North Carolina, stated, “Dairy and other products from mammals, such as gelatin, can be an issue for some patients with the alpha-gal allergy as well, but this appears to be a minority of patients.”

He also works within the Thurston Research Center and is a part of the UNC Food Allergy Initiative, where he can see patients and perform research.

“If there is a cut on the skin that allows meat/juices to enter, then a reaction could be triggered. Aside from something unusual such as that, most patients have not reported major issues when coming in contact with touching red meat,” reported Dr. Commins on if someone with the red meat allergy could have an allergic reaction when handling red meat and not ingesting it.

A lone star tick bite can cause a terrible allergy to red meat for humans.

The allergic reaction will occur three to eight hours after eating red meat. However, the reaction can develop days or weeks later. The reaction can range from having hives to anaphylaxis. Many doctors in the medical field are not aware of this allergy. When visiting the hospital after an allergic reaction, a doctor may not know to ask if you have been bitten by a tick recently or if you have eaten red meat in the past three to eight hours. A blood test is the only way to see if you have the meat allergy.

Curtis Self, of Hamilton, Ala., is a victim of the alpha-gal allergy and shared his experience with a reaction to red meat.

“I had a bacon cheeseburger at a steakhouse that night,” said Curtis. “The place was packed, and we didn’t get to eat until about 8:30 or so. I woke up around 3 a.m. with severe stomach pains, nausea and stomach problems, and I noticed my hands and feet were itching severely. I actually drew blood on my hands from scratching them so much. I noticed that my throat was starting to close up and luckily thought to take a Benadryl.”

There is some encouraging news for those with the alpha-gal allergy.

“The data we have thus far suggests that most patients who develop alpha-gal allergy will have a gradual decline in the allergic response over time,” said Dr. Commins. “The allergy appears to lessen and resolve over time. One of the issues we have seen, however, is that additional tick bites appear to cause the allergic response to increase (or return). In other instances, some patients have been able to tolerate red meat during certain seasons (mainly winter) or if they happen to have a good year and get no tick bites.”

Trey Taylor, a hunter from Dublin who has the allergy, commented, “It’s like it got progressively worse at first. I couldn’t eat hamburgers. My wife cooked a meatloaf one night and almost killed me before I knew. Then it was like pork started affecting me, so it’s like the symptoms slowly came on.”

Alicia Wiggins, a resident of McDonough, who has been living with the alpha-gal allergy for at least 10 years, said, “I have seen no change in my symptoms. I have had it for over 10 years, although I was just diagnosed in March 2016.”

For a hunter and outdoorsman, there is not a full-proof method to avoid lone star ticks. They love wildlife, more specifically deer. The next time you are field-dressing a deer, keep in mind that there is a possibility for there to be lone star ticks on the deer.

Curtis Self, of Hamilton, Ala., battles his tick bite-induced allergy every day with not being able to eat mammalian meat.

Mature and seed ticks can pass alpha-gal to their host. Seed ticks are young lone star ticks. They are visible to the eye but are very small. If you ever get seed ticks on your body, you will likely get more than 50 at one time. To remove seed ticks from your skin, use a piece of tape or a lint roller. Do this immediately after knowing you have seed ticks in order to avoid getting the allergy.

“I have to read labels on everything,” said Alicia. “If I go out to eat, I have to ask a lot of questions. It’s not just about not eating mammal meat, but even a trace of an animal by-product can cause issues. If I choose to go out to eat, I only feel safe at Chick-fil-A or Zaxby’s—anywhere else is too risky.”

For some, it’s just easier to avoid eating out.

“We eat at home mostly now, and the only meats that I can have are chicken, emu, turkey and fish. That is tough for someone who always enjoyed steak, bbq, deer jerky and cheeseburgers,” said Curtis.

Ashley Brock, of Autauga County Alabama, told GON that she is able to eat deer meat. However, she is not able to eat beef. Brock also told GON that she does test her limits sometimes just because it’s hard not eating eat.

If you love eating red meat, it would be hard to imagine living without being able to eat venison or a nice steak. Taylor told GON that he had to alter his diet, isn’t fun to go out to eat with, can’t eat what other people eat and always carries Benadryl. There are ways to prevent you from being bit by a lone star tick and developing the alpha-gal allergy.

There are two different concerns when dealing with the prevention of ticks. One is keeping the ticks off your skin. To protect your skin while outdoors, use a repellent containing DEET. This repellent works best when applied directly to your skin.

The other concern is keeping ticks off your body. To protect your clothing while outdoors, you must use a repellent containing Permethrin. Permethrin should not be used on your skin. The ideal way of protecting your clothing is to spray them the day before you plan to go hunting. Just lay out your clothes on newspaper, and spray the back and front with Permethrin. Let them dry until the morning.

Keep in mind that DEET and Permethrin are toxic to fish, so if you touch your fishing lures after spraying repellent on your skin or clothing, you will probably not catch any fish that day.

If you do not like to spray a repellent onto your skin because of the way it feels, keep in mind that lone star ticks are only about ankle high or lower when you are walking outside. They do not climb trees. However, once on you, they do climb upward. So, if you don’t want to feel sticky all day from the tick repellent on your upper extremities, at least use it below your knees.

Even though you may use repellents, you will need to check yourself thoroughly for ticks. There are many ways out there on how to remove a tick. However, some of the ways are not proper ways.

Dr. N. C. Hinkle, who is a professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Georgia, commented on the removal of a tick. One thing she said up front was that removing a tick by freezing is not a good idea.

“I do not recommend this at all,” said Dr. Hinkle. “Do not do anything to irritate the tick. Pinch as close as possible to the skin. Try not to press on the balloon part of the tick. Just pull the tick off.”

I would assume most outdoorsmen/women have at least one pet, more specifically a dog. As a pet lover and an advocate for keeping pets healthy, I would advise you to check your dogs for ticks, as well as yourself after being outdoors. Dogs can receive diseases from ticks just like humans can. It is also important to put a flea-and-tick collar on your dog to prevent your dog from getting ticks. Your vet can also put them on some sort of tick preventative that they take orally.

The alpha-gal allergy is a real thing, and it would be difficult to live with for someone who likes eating red meat. If you do not want to end up like Alicia Wiggins, who takes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich everywhere she goes, use the tips to keep ticks off your body, and check twice for ticks after being outdoors. Keep in mind that this allergy is so new that there’s still a lot mystery involved with it. However, it’s certainly something to relay to your doctor if you get bitten by a tick and begin to develop the symptoms.

Note: We’ve heard from people who have the allergy after being bitten by a tick.

From Peggy Strickland: “On October 1, 2015, I had a great steak supper, early in the evening, with trimmings and red wine. Less than three hours later, sitting, reading, I suddenly had a deep, intense itch in the palms of my hands, strange “stars” in my vision and a crawly sensation inside my head. I was dizzy, but stood to go into the kitchen for ice and water. A blackness descended. Next thing I knew, my husband was standing over me, calling my name. I realized I was on the floor looking up. He helped me rise and led me to the bed. I was immediately awash in sweat, my clothing soon soaked; on the heels of that, extreme shaking chills. My heart was racing, beating out of my chest. My throat and face felt huge. Neither James nor I said the words, but the fear of stroke or heart stack was there. I was coherent, but things were fuzzy. I was weak. As many of you know, we live in the boonies, about half an hour from town. Rather than call 911, we decided a trip to hospital was warranted, but in the car. I shook so hard on the way, I feared my teeth would break with the chattering, so I mostly held my jaws clenched. James called our son, Heath and he was waiting at the hospital. Long story short… a night of irregular heart activity, extreme fluctuation in blood pressure (at one point, 70/30) whacky oxygen levels, EKG, echo cardiogram, blood drawn multiple times, urinalysis, blood sugar tested, IV for fluids, two cat scans, chest X-ray, shot in stomach for stroke, MRI., all night and next day on heart monitor.. No definitive results. I was released pending seeing my family doctor next day. He postulated that I may have a pinched vagus nerve, which can result in heart being wonky, fainting, etc. In the meanwhile, my husband James and I had speculated about an attack we both had experienced of what we thought were redbugs/chiggers about ten days before. I had multiple bites all over my body (which I had told hospital personnel about). We had heard on the news recently about tick borne ailments like Lyme disease. I asked the doctor to order up tests for such a possibility. He was skeptical, but kind, and did so. End results… I tested positive for a tick borne condition called “Alpha-Gal,” short for Galactose-Alpha- 1,3. This causes an allergic reaction to mammalian meat. Effects can range from itching or hives to sever gastro-intestinal issues, to full blown anaphylaxis, unconsciousness, even death if not arrested. Research is limited, but increasing. The University of Virginia in the US is in the forefront of study. Many hospitals and doctors (as I found) are unfamiliar with the occurrence. Virginia, Kentucky and surrounding areas have the largest US occurrence, but cases are turning up in the UK and Australia. My husband has not been tested, but having the same bites and some extreme stomach pain and digestive issues during the same period, we believe most likely is affected. I am sharing this to help spread awareness, and Facebook seems a good forum. Whether we were bitten by redbugs or larval ticks is unsure. Please guard your families, your children, especially in the woods and undergrowth. Use a good insect spray. Check for ticks over your body, in hair. Be alert for incidences such as I described in my experience. *I have since soaked outdoor clothing in a solution of 10% Permethrin, which is used by our military for wooded or jungle duty. Antihistamines can help with mild episodes. *I now carry two Epi pens for emergency. Watch closely for swelling of the throat or difficulty breathing. Mammal products are in much of our food and medicines. I am learning to read labels with a new eye. James and I have cut meat from our diets, except for chicken and seafood. Cross contamination in restaurants can be a worry. For example, many restaurants grill or fry seafood or chicken on the same griddle or oil as they do pork chops. I can provide resources for anyone with further interest. Googling Alpha-gal brings up a few results. Thanks for reading. Careful in the woods!”

From Brittany Peeler Chastain: “Thank you so much for the article on the LoneStar tick. My dad was diagnosed in January with this after a 5-year life threatening journey with multiple misdiagnosis. It is our families mission to spread awareness about Alpha-Gal in hopes that others won’t have to go through what we did for the last five years!!!”

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