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Understanding Alpha-gal Syndrome, the Tick-borne Meat Allergy


As humans, there are already several worries when it comes to being bitten by a tick. There are tick bites that might only cause a minor reaction, whether that be swelling or a small sore, while other bites cause far more serious issues such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Today, there’s another tick-borne ailment that’s been rising in cases over the years called alpha-gal syndrome. This meat allergy is believed to be triggered by a tick bite, with cases rising from a reported 24 in 2009 to 34,000 by 2018 in the United States alone.

What is alpha-gal syndrome?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, alpha-gal is a sugar molecule found in most mammals but is not present in birds, fish, reptiles, or humans. It’s more regularly found in red meat, including pork, beef, rabbit, lamb, and venison, as well as products of mammals, including gelatin, cow’s milk, and various milk products. Alpha-gal syndrome–which is also called alpha-gal allergy, red meat allergy, or tick bite meat allergy–is a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that is not caused by an infection. Rather, this serious condition starts showing symptoms after people eat red meat or are exposed to products that contain alpha-gal.

The main cause of AGS is a bite from a Lone Star tick–which is most active between early spring and late fall–though other types of ticks can lead to the condition located across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States. The type of ticks that can cause AGS are thought to carry the alpha-gal molecules from the blood of animals that they bite. Then, the alpha-gal becomes injected into the individual’s body when the tick bites a human. ​​

While it’s still unknown why only some individuals develop AGS and others don’t when they are exposed to alpha-gal molecules, AGS most commonly occurs in the southeast of the United States, as well as in parts of New York, New Jersey, and the New England area. Those who live or even spend time in these areas are at risk, in addition to individuals who spend time outdoors, have been bitten by a Lone Star Tick multiple times, or have a mast cell abnormality.

What are the symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome?

AGS can develop at any point during our lives. Symptoms of this condition include hives or an itchy rash, nausea and vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, dropping blood pressure, dizziness, severe stomach pain, as well as swelling of our eyelids, lips, throat, and tongue. 

These symptoms occur anywhere between two to six hours after consuming the meat or dairy products or after one has been exposed to products with alpha-gal. 

While not every individual has a reaction to every single exposure to alpha-gal, some reactions may be severe or life-threatening, including going into anaphylaxis, which requires immediate medical care.

What to do if you have alpha-gal syndrome

In order to properly diagnose AGS, a doctor would need to use both your personal medical history as well as tests. Questions from the doctor will revolve around your personal exposure to ticks, any symptoms you may be having, and the timing of the symptoms after consuming red meat or by-products of mammals. The tests may include a blood test to look at the amount of alpha-gal antibodies in the bloodstream, as well as a skin test which will expose you to small amounts of substances extracted from red meat.

Similar to other food allergies, treatment of AGS requires individuals to avoid foods that cause an intense reaction. It’s important to ensure that what you consume doesn’t include red meat or meat-based ingredients. For more severe reactions, this may require an EpiPen. If you don’t get bitten by any more ticks, some individuals had AGS who were able to consume the red meat and mammal products again after just a couple of years.

How to prevent alpha-gal syndrome

Since tick bites are the main cause of AGS, it’s also important to take the necessary precautions outdoors to avoid getting bitten. 

This includes wearing clothing that covers your skin–such as long-sleeve shirts, pants, and high socks–when you are outdoors in areas where ticks may inhabit. It’s also recommended to tuck your pant legs into your socks to avoid any gaps the ticks can enter. You can also use bug repellant on your clothes and skin to deter the ticks. 

Additionally, before you go back inside, check yourself for ticks, and if you see one on your skin, remove it with tweezers as soon as you can.

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