According to studies, a tick bite appears to be the cause of alpha-gal syndrome, a meat allergy. The number of cases is also increasing. In 2009, just 24 instances were documented in the United States. By 2018, the number had risen to over 34,000.
In fact, in a southeastern registry of patients, alpha-gal syndrome has become the top cause of anaphylaxis, according to a federal report.
What is alpha-gal syndrome?
Alpha-gal syndrome is a form of food allergy to red meat and other mammalian products that has just recently been identified. Lone Star tick bites are the most common cause of the condition in the United States. A sugar molecule known as alpha-gal is transmitted into the body through the bite. This causes an immune system reaction in some people, resulting in mild to severe allergic reactions to red meat (beef, pork, or lamb), as well as other mammalian products.
The Lone Star tick is primarily widespread in the southeastern United States, and it is in this region that most cases of alpha-gal syndrome occur. The tick can also be found in the United States’ eastern and south-central regions. However, when deer bring the Lone Star tick to new portions of the United States, the disease looks to be spreading further north and west. Alpha-gal syndrome has also been reported in Europe, Australia, and Asia, where alpha-gal molecules are carried by other types of ticks.
Researchers now suspect that alpha-gal syndrome may afflict certain people who have repeated, unexplained anaphylaxis events while testing negative for other food sensitivities. Other than avoiding red meat and other mammalian-derived products, there is no cure.
The key to prevention is avoiding tick bites. When walking through woodland and grassy regions, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts and use insect repellents to avoid tick bites. After spending time outdoors, do a thorough, full-body tick check.
When opposed to other food allergies, the signs and symptoms of an alpha-gal allergic reaction are generally delayed. The majority of reactions to popular food allergies, such as peanuts or shellfish, happen within minutes of exposure. Reactions to alpha-gal syndrome usually develop three to six hours after exposure. Red meat, such as beef, pork, lamb, organ meats, and mammalian products, such as gelatins and dairy products, can all trigger an allergic reaction.
The following are some of the signs and symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome:
- Hives, itching, or itchy, scaly skin (eczema).
- Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, and neck, as well as other areas of the body.
- Shortness of breath or wheezing.
- A runny nose.
- Stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting.
- A severe, even fatal allergic reaction that causes breathing difficulties (anaphylaxis).
One reason the condition was neglected until recently, according to doctors, is the time lag between eating red meat and developing an allergic reaction. It was difficult to see a link between a T-bone steak for dinner and hives at midnight.
When to see a doctor
If you have food allergy symptoms after eating — even several hours after eating — see your health care doctor or an allergist who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of allergies. If you live or spend time outdoors in the southeastern United States or other places of the world where alpha-gal syndrome is known to occur, don’t count out red meat as a possible cause of your reaction.
If you experience any of the following signs or symptoms of anaphylaxis, get immediate medical care:
- Breathing problems.
- The pulse is quick and feeble.
- Lightheadedness or dizziness.
- Drooling and difficulty swallowing.
- Warmth and redness all over the body (flushing).
How is an alpha-gal allergy treated?
Immediate symptoms such as hives or shortness of breath are treated in an urgent care setting with antihistamines, adrenaline, and other drugs, just like any other food allergy. In sensitized people, long-term prevention entails avoiding all red meat. It’s possible that you’ll be advised to carry an epinephrine auto-injector with you, to be utilized in the event of more accidental exposures and reactions. These precautions do not need a completely vegetarian diet, as poultry and fish can be ingested without causing comparable reactions. As with other food allergies, there’s a chance that your sensitivity will fade over time – though it could take years for these changes to show up.
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