Has your favorite burger recently prompted heartburn, indigestion or nausea? Are you experiencing swelling of the lips, throat or tongue, or seen hives or an itchy rash come after enjoying a steak? Also, have you been bitten by a tick lately? It might just be alpha-gal syndrome – a tick-born red meat allergy. But what is alpha-gal syndrome?
Alpha-gal syndrome has affected more than 110,000 people nationwide between 2010 and 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But why have many people never heard of this?
Alpha-gal is a type of food allergy that can be transmitted into the bloodstream through a Lone Star tick bite. People with alpha-gal have allergic reactions to red meat and other products made from mammals.
“Alpha-gal is not naturally produced in humans but is present in most mammals,” Rachel Livecchi, MD, of Mercy Health – Franklin Avenue Internal Medicine, explains. “It doesn’t affect us when entered through our eating of meat, but it can have an impact if it enters our bloodstream through a Lone Star tick bite.”
Simply put, a bite from this particular tick can transmit a sugar molecule to humans that, once in the bloodstream, will create an allergic reaction the next time the body encounters alpha-gal – mostly likely through the eating of red meat. Symptoms range from hives to a drop in blood pressure or shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.
“When the tick attaches and puts the sugar molecule into our blood, and then when the body is exposed to it again when eating a mammal product, our bodies respond because they recognize that the molecule is already in the blood and antibodies have been formed,” Dr. Livecchi says. “So, what does the body do at that point? Our immune systems gear up an attack, and we respond with an allergic reaction.”
Alpha-gal syndrome is diagnosed through a blood test. However, because patients don’t often equate their symptoms to their last meal, the syndrome can be difficult to diagnose. Additionally, allergic reactions often appear hours after someone has eaten a mammal product.
This delay in reaction, coupled with the fact that many doctors are still unfamiliar with the syndrome, means that there are likely many more cases of alpha-gal syndrome than are officially diagnosed.
The Lone Star tick is mainly located in the southeastern, south-central and eastern U.S. and is found mostly in woodlands with dense undergrowth. They have been found as far north as Ohio, New York and even portions of Maine.
So, while the risk is real for a Lone Star tick bite, it is still relatively uncommon.
Also, a bite from the tick is the only way to get alpha-gal syndrome. Dr. Livecchi explains that simply eating red meat would not result in the allergy because the sugars would break down and just pass through the body.
Like many diagnosed allergies, alpha-gal is often treated with the use of an epinephrine auto-injector and, of course, avoiding red meat and mammal products. But Dr. Livecchi says that symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome may lessen or even disappear over time if you avoid additional bites from ticks that carry alpha-gal.
Despite its inclusion as a public health concern, alpha-gal syndrome is best handled through awareness and practicing tick safety.
“I don’t think it should shy people away from red meat products, but I definitely think it should raise awareness for patients that might have some of these symptoms after eating meat,” Dr. Livecchi adds.
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