a cut of red meat with a question mark in it

Can You Be Allergic to Meat?

Did you ever see a story on the news and thought, "this can't be real?!" A few years ago, I saw a story about how someone can become allergic to meat after being bit by the lone star tick. To quote Dave Barry, "I am not making this up!"

I thought it was an interesting story but didn't worry too much about it. The lone star tick hails from Texas and is the most common tick that causes a red meat allergy. One bite from the little bloodsuckers can lead to an allergy to meat from mammals.

The lone star tick is spreading out

I just flew to Washington, D.C., for Allergy and Asthma Day on Capitol Hill. As I was in the airport, I heard a report that the lone star tick had been found in D.C. Yikes! Since I have the worst luck in the world, I was worried the lone star tick would bite me while I was out there. But, I came away unscathed. Phew! I have other food allergies to worry about!

What is alpha-gal syndrome?

This condition is called alpha-gal syndrome (AGS). Alpha-gal is a sugar molecule found in most mammals and products made from mammals. This includes beef, pork, rabbit, lamb, venison, cow's milk, milk products, and gelatin.1

Alpha-gal is not in fish, birds, or reptiles (or people)!

But now, the lone star tick is spreading to other states. It has been found in the South, Central, and Eastern part of the U.S.2

Symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome

Alpha-gal syndrome is also called alpha-gal allergy, tick bite meat allergy, or red meat allergy. But alpha-gal can also be found in products from mammals, such as milk products, meat broth/bullion, gravy, lard, and gelatin.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome are similar to other food allergies. These include:1

  • Rash or hives
  • Swelling in the throat, lips, tongue, or eyelids
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Severe stomach pain and/or diarrhea
  • Heartburn/indigestion
  • Feeling dizzy/faint
  • A sudden drop in blood pressure
  • Coughing/difficulty breathing

You can have a reaction 2 to 6 hours after eating dairy or meat, or after swallowing something that contains alpha-gal. The CDC has an extensive list on its website of foods and products that contain alpha-gal.3

Like other food allergies, the reaction can be different for everyone. They can vary from mild to life-threatening. And you may not react every time you have an alpha-gal exposure.2

What to do if you get a tick bite

If a tick has bitten you, store the tick in a small bottle if you can. It may help your doctor identify what type of tick you were bitten by. Alpha-gal syndrome has been linked to lone star ticks, but other ticks haven't yet been ruled out.

Red meat allergy diagnosis

If you have had an allergic reaction after eating meat or dairy, an allergist can perform an allergy test to look for an antibody to alpha-gal. Your doctor can also help you figure out which foods to avoid, such as rabbit, venison, beef, pork, or lamb. Your doctor may also want you to avoid milk, products made from milk, and gelatin.

Tick bite prevention

It's also important to protect yourself against tick bites. A new bite can reactivate an allergic reaction to alpha-gal. Ugh!

Check your pets for ticks, too, to ensure they don't bring any potentially dangerous ticks into your house. If you have alpha-gal syndrome, know that you are not alone!

Has anyone developed AGS after a tick bite? Share your story below so you can help others!

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