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Tick bite can produce allergy to red meat

It almost sounds like a myth. A bite from a Lone Star Tick could make you allergic to red meat. As MSN News reported on Aug. 7, the allergy and its cause are no myth. It is not a tick borne infection such as Lyme disease, and it is becoming common.

Map showing the estimated distribution of the Lone Star Tick in the United States
CDC / public domain

The article notes that some specialists have seen hundreds of patients with this food allergy. It is unusual because most food allergies are related to sensitivity to a protein. This is not the case here.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology calls tick bites "a common cause of IgE antibodies to alpha-gal." That means that the tick injects a sugar called alpha-gal when it bites. The human body develops an immune reaction to the sugar. Since beef and pork contain the same sugar, any meal with red meat may provoke an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis.

The diagnostic problem has been that the allergic reaction does not appear in many cases until three to six hours have passed since the meal. Most allergic reactions, such as to bee stings, reveal themselves far more rapidly.

Because it is not an illness, antibiotics are of no use. Patients will need to avoid meat and meat products with alpha-gal. They may also need to ask their physician for allergy medications, including an emergency source of epinephrine (i.e. Epi Pen) in case of anaphylaxis.

The Lone Star Tick is found throughout most of the United States east of Texas and south of the Great Lakes. It does not transmit Lyme Disease but the University of Florida notes that it can carry other diseases such as "ehrlichiosis, rickettsiosis, tularemia, and theileriosis." White tailed deer and wild turkey are the primary hosts but this tick will feed on nearly any bird or mammal. The university notes that the Lone Star Tick is "the most common tick reported to bite humans in the southeastern and southcentral U.S.A."

Viracor-IBT, a commercial provider of diagnostic tests, worked with the University of Virginia to establish the levels of alpha-gal sensitivity in humans in areas where the Lone Star Tick is found, and in areas where it is not. Within the range identified on CDC maps, the rate of sensitivity ranged between 41 and 49 percent. Outside of Lone Star Tick habitat, the rate varied from four percent to 23 percent. The high rates of sensitivity in some areas outside the tick's range suggests that "potentially other ticks or human factors may also play a role in the prevalence of alpha-gal sensitization."

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