By Gina Spiller
Doctors across the nation are seeing a surge of sudden meat allergies in people bitten by a certain kind of tick. This bizarre problem was only discovered a few years ago but is growing as the ticks spread from the southwest and east to more parts of the United States. In some cases, eating a burger or a steak has landed people in the hospital with severe allergic reactions.
The culprit is the Lone Star Tick. The bug harbors a sugar that humans don’t have called alpha-gal. The sugar is also found in red meat-beef, pork, venison, rabbit-and even some dairy products. It’s usually fine when people encounter it through food that gets digested. But a tick bite triggers and immune system response, and in that high-alert state, the body perceives the sugar the tick transmitted to the victim’s bloodstream and skin as a foreign substance, and makes antibodies to it. That sets the stage for an allergic reaction the next time the person eats red meat.
The symptoms may occur as long as eight hours after eating meat, rather than immediately, and the culprit is a sugar, a type of carbohydrate whereas most food allergies are caused by proteins. Doctors don’t know if the allergy is permanent. Some patients show signs of declining antibodies over time, although those with severe reactions are understandably reluctant to risk eating meat again.
Reducing exposure to ticks is the best defense against all tick diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other tick borne infections. Be extra cautious in warmer months (April-September) when ticks are most active. Avoid wooded areas and high grass, use tick repellants, bathe and shower as soon as possible after coming indoors to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.
If you have a tick bite mark the day on the calendar just in case you would get a rash, fever, headache or other signs of a tick borne infection within three-30 days. If a rash appears where the tick bit occurred seek medical attention.
If you would like more information, contact the Brown County Health Department.
Gina Spiller, RN, is the nursing director at the Brown County Board of Health.Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.